Winter is my least favorite time of year. I despise the air being cold, the wind stinging my face, the trees without their color, and the fact it gets dark even before 6 pm. Even snow, what used to be associated with glee in hopes I would miss a day of school, now just seems inconvenient. I hold a new appreciation for warmth, comfortability, and the $20 Egyptian cotton towel I purchased last night. With that said, it’s the time of the year where friends and families are brought together and music publications tell us which albums were the best of the year. Well, I’m not here to sing songs about Santa or to rank art with arbitrary numbers, but I do have a list. This list doesn’t compile albums from weakest to strongest or try to summarize the year in music, this is a list of albums that I found especially unique, catchy, entertaining, or comforting throughout my 2016. I wrote this in an attempt to avoid albums I’ve previously discussed and try to highlight ones you may have missed. These aren’t ranked in any way. I just wanted to share some excellent albums that you probably won’t find on other year-end lists.
⇒ Levi Carter – Presence of a Lord
In a world filled with Lil’s and Young’s, a name like Levi Carter doesn’t exactly stand out but then you find out he’s signed to Roc Nation at 22 years old after releasing only two projects. He approaches the slow, twinkly production on tracks like “Paid in Full” and “Girl Next Door” with such a relaxed flow it’s like his statements are just floating through the space between your ears. It’s on “Clearview” where he changes pace and shows that under the sparkly synths is a man much darker. The following track “Glass Mirrors” carries some morose lyrics on Carter’s perspective of death and having to play your part as a man. This project doesn’t feature any other artists and displays the ability Carter has to carry songs with catchy hooks, fluid flows, and an excellent ear for production. Surely an artist who will stand out in 2017.
⇒ Payroll Giovanni – Big Bossin Vol. 1
Outside of being the smooth operator of Doughboyz Cashout and once being signed to Young Jeezy’s CTE label, he’s dropped two outstanding albums this year. I had a bit more time to chew on this one and found the chemistry between Payroll and Cardo unmatched this year– besides maybe the Knx/Paak collab. Cardo’s smooth, sunny-day production like on “Sell Something” and “Sucka Free” is the perfect contrast to Payroll’s rugged, Detroit-cold flow. Payroll shares stories about the lifestyle of being a hustler in the 313 and the soundscapes behind him make this the perfect audiobook to cruise too, in the sun or snow. Hoping to see a Vol. 2 in 2017.
⇒ Kadjha Bonet – The Visitor
I can chuck a whole list of adjectives at you in an attempt to describe how The Visitor sounds, but let’s start with it being an angelic experience. When you think it’s going one direction, the young songstress Kadjha Bonet flips the script adds spice where you least expect it. This album is filled with luscious production all arranged Bonet, herself. “Honeycomb” being the stand out with a voice that sounds like silk over subtle drums and flutes. With all the instrumentation, the album never feels bloated and she never sounds out of place. It ranges from jazz to folk to soul to psychedelia blended with Bonet’s chilling, pure vocals this makes for a comfy, winter album.
⇒ Travis Scott – Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
I don’t want to say this was rap album of the year, but if I had to pick an album that exceeded all expectations and exemplified everything I liked in the genre, it’d be this one. This album showcases the king of voice modulation doing backstrokes through beautiful, muddy, bionic production to the point you start to wonder if humans were involved at all. What Travis lacks in lyricism and storytelling, he excels in molding into every beat effortlessly, chanting catchy choruses, and orchestrating his features perfectly. I don’t think there was a feature on this project I disliked and this is all coming from someone who was not completely sold on Rodeo.
⇒ Westside Gunn – Hitler Wears Hermes 4
I think this album wraps the whole “new york rapper” aesthetic in the coldest, grittiest package. Westside Gunn has been on an impressive streak of releases dropping four studio projects this year. This one is featuring spine shivering keys on tracks like “Nasty” and “5x a Day”, a Combat Jack interlude, and Gunn delivering some heavy bars on weaponry with compelling storytelling. This isn’t music for outsiders; the production focuses more on keys and samples than drums allowing Gunn to flow in an unorthodox manner where on tracks like “The Almighty” it sounds like he could be holding a conversation between just him and I. Gunn’s message is made clear on this album and reveals the icy arsenal behind one of New York’s coldest rappers.
⇒ Nao – For All We Know
This was an album that stood out to me immediately upon first listen. The British songwriter’s nasally delivery over the bubbly, synth-dominant production was the combination I never knew I needed. It combines aspects of R&B, funk, and pop to create some groovy soundscapes for Nao to soar above. On this album, we find her expressing her ideas of love on “Happy and “Adore You” and also on unsuccessful relationships like “In the Morning”. This album comes in at a jarring 18 track length, but Nao leaves plenty to be discovered. Pulling in influence from artists like Prince and D’Angelo, this was an electronic album I couldn’t look past.
⇒ The Caretaker – Everywhere at the end of time
Leyland James Kirby is an artist with a plethora of side projects and aliases, but I haven’t come across one quite as beautiful as this. As The Caretaker, he uses this project in an exploration of memory loss after 20 years of orchestration under the moniker. This album is only the beginning, stage one, of a six series project. Kirby explains that each album will explore “the progression, loss, and disintegration” of memory loss through music. The music itself is slow, crackly ambient tracks sprinkled with jazz-like instrumentation. It’s been described as “haunted ballroom” music and is perfect music to have you dozing off–if you don’t prefer J. Cole. This was one of the most interesting releases of 2016 and I’m anxiously anticipating the next five installments.
⇒ Frank Ocean – Blond
Oh yes, by far, the biggest album/release of 2016. This album knocked everyone on their asses. Frank Ocean flipped his own script and stepped away from the natural, more acoustic sound we saw on “Channel Orange” and stepped into the silent cyberspace we all patiently held him in. With the teaser that was “Endless”, nobody was sure if these were b-sides or a completely different experiment on its own. With “Nikes” being released as a single, the mystery became less shrouded, but people still didn’t know what to expect with the newly experimentation in voice modulation over more atmospheric production, but in the context of the album, it took my breath away to hear his croon after 4 years and a long 3 minutes into the first track. This album enters a realm of psychedelia that was foreign to Frank fans on his first few projects–on tracks like “Solo” he vividly describes events during an acid trip like seeing a bull duel a matador in the clouds. We still get beautiful, acoustic moments like on track “Self Control” where he sings to a lost loved one and features a cute, high-pitched chorus that eventually breaks down into an angelic chant towards the end of the song. It never ceases to amaze me how the music of a homosexual, misunderstood, black male can relate so much to me and kids across all over the internet, but the lyrics “shut the f*ck up, I don’t want your conversation / rolling marijuana, that’s a cheap vacation” from “Nights” will stand out to me forever. This album exposes Frank at his most honest and personal. The world thanks you for this album Frank.
In addition to this list, I’ve added a chart that details the most played albums in my iTunes library. This isn’t an accurate representation of all albums played over the course of the year, but it’s another visual that gives you a glimpse into some of the major releases I was into this year