TrackRecord's Superlatives For 2016
What a year.
As the year comes to a close, TrackRecord looks back on the best moments of 2016, as well as some things we wish had gone differently. In 2016, we saw the resurgence of the album, the disappearance of the headphone jack, and in many ways, the continued politicization of music, thanks to the election. We also said goodbye to some beloved music icons—Prince, David Bowie, Juan Gabriel—and watched another troll the Swedish Academy. It wasn't all rosy, but it was certainly a wild ride, and one we're thankful for.
Over the next two weeks, we'll be publishing more reflections on 2016 (as well as a look ahead for 2017). But first, let's give credit where credit is due, in our favorite form of rankings: high school yearbook-style superlatives.
Album that lost its magic over the year: The Life of Pablo
I was all aboard the So Help Me God-SWISH-Waves-The Life of Pablo train, through every stage of its graffitied tracklist. I’d never seen an album rollout so clumsy or tentative—but it was all oddly exhilarating. I sprinted home to catch his live-buffer Madison Square Garden event, and I screamed along when Kanye announced “ALBUM IN STORE, KANYEWEST.COM, RIGHT NOW, TIDAL STREAMING, RIGHT NOW” on SNL. And for several weeks, The Life of Pablo sounded better than anything else. It didn’t matter that the most beautiful song he’d ever written was almost immediately followed by a line about bleached assholes. We’ve come to expect that sort of thing from Kanye. But as time passed, his post-release tinkering also seemed to alter much of what sounded so spontaneous and alive on first listen. Kanye’s moments of divine power and locker room humor began to blur, making it difficult to hear Pablo’s highlights on their own; at some point, they just became part of an uglier, shambling whole. The Life of Pablo was never going to be the best album of 2016, but now, looking back, it’s definitely the most 2016 album.
Top songs we couldn’t stop listening to (even if sometimes it brought us embarrassment):
— “Work,” Rihanna, ft. Drake
— “Shut Up Kiss Me,” Angel Olsen
— “Black Beatles,” Rae Sremmurd, ft. Gucci Mane
— “No Problem,” Chance the Rapper, ft. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz
— “Cash Machine,” D.R.A.M.
— ”Ivy,” Frank Ocean
— “Controlla,” Drake
— “This Is What You Came For,” Calvin Harris, ft. Rihanna
— “Work From Home,” Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign
— “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” Car Seat Headrest
Most underappreciated song on Chance the Rapper’s album: “All Night.”
It’s hard to find a flaw in Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book; the album opener and closer are both edifying and electric, and everything in between shines as bright as the Chicago rapper posing for a pic at the White House. But if there’s one track on there doesn’t get enough love, it’s “All Night.” It can be easy to forget about the funky late-night jam, what with the album’s stadium-fillers like “No Problem” and “Mixtape”—but that doesn’t mean “All Night” can’t stand on its own. On the track, Chance is all-seeing; he knows your drunk ass wants a ride home and he knows you’re pretending to be his cousin. Thankfully for you, he is also benevolent—he won’t hold any of it against you if you can answer this question correctly: “IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T GOT GAS MONEY?”
Trend we’d like to see retired next year: The rush to react to new music
In 2016, dropping a surprise album didn’t quite reach commodified art form. Instead, every time a big-name artist released a surprise album, the details of its rollout seemed to reveal something unique about the artist themselves, the way the lines in the palm of your hand say something about your future.
The recording industry hasn’t quite nailed what a surprise album looks like yet—part of that stems from the “surprise” part of the term—but one thing is for sure: the form isn’t going anywhere. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in theory; instead, what sometimes feels inescapable is the pressure to stop what you’re doing, stream or download or purchase the album from wherever you are, and be ready to shout out your reaction right away. Music aficionados will be happy to see the album’s resurgence—but wouldn’t it be nice to have enough time to listen to a record in full and think about it and listen to it again and process it and then talk about it? Maybe it’s impossible, but that also makes it an excellent thought experiment. If Frank Ocean stepped away from social media to make Blonde and Endless, could we do the same during our first listen?
Comeback kid: Gucci Mane
Gucci Mane is living. This year the Michelangelo of Atlanta rap released a full-length album, a mixtape, two EPs (one with Future and one with Liz Uzi Vert), and had a feature on one of the year’s most popular rap songs. All this after being released from prison in May. But his musical output isn’t what’s really surprising (Guwop has always been prolific). The thing that has everybody looking is his new lease on life. Gucci has talked openly about his new diet, his newfound sobriety, and how loved he feels in his relationship (he recently proposed to his girlfriend Keyshia Ka’oir). He went on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert and it was amazing. If Gucci’s sending out any message this year, it’s that he can do anything—and there’s still time left to drop another studio album before it’s over.
Runner-up: Teyana Taylor*
Technically Teyana Taylor doesn't qualify as a comeback kid. She has been making music and working with big-name rappers (including Kanye West and Jay-Z) for years—even scoring vocal credits on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But when West premiered his visual treatment for “Fade” during his four-minute “blank slate” at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor returned to the nation's consciousness and became the evening’s breakout star.
* Also winner of Best revival of Flashdance-esque dance moves
Best hair: The Weeknd, because he cut it.
This isn’t a dig on the Toronto native’s former signature look. But since shearing off his locks, the Weekend looks like he’s ready to embark on a new narrative. The video for his lead single features the singer murdering an older version of himself before vandalizing a condo filled with awards, in a sort of updated version of George Michael’s “Freedom” video. Perhaps now is the time that “Starboy” will become a “Starman.”
Most likely to succeed (in 2017):
— Maggie Rogers
— Moses Sumney
— Kodie Shane
— Little Simz
Best dressed: Young Thug on the cover of JEFFERY
This year, Young Thug wanted to make two things very clear about himself. One is that his name is Jeffrey. (Actually, the Atlanta rapper briefly dubbed himself “No, My Name is Jeffrey,” in a move that was equal parts whimsy, Prince tribute, and quarter-life crisis.) The other is that he doesn’t care about gender norms. He wore a ruffled periwinkle dress and matching hat on the cover of his latest mixtape, leaving some fans were confused. But Thugger’s outfit shouldn’t come as a surprise—he has a long history of pushing boundaries in rap music, and has spoken openly about incorporating women’s clothes into his style. Whatever the impetus, Young Thug will be remembered for his iconic (and meme-friendly) frock, and his contributions to rap’s complicated relationship with queer identity politics.
Most unlistenable song on an otherwise good album: “Obama,” ANOHNI
ANOHNI trades in urgent, caps-locked statements that mostly favor devastating emotional appeal over specifics. When it comes to music—and especially political music—this is my preferred mode of communication. On her great HOPELESSNESS, ANOHNI trusts that you’ve already done much of the homework for these songs to carry poignancy. But, when the record arrives at its far too on-the-nose centerpiece, “Obama,” the magic’s gone. Over low, undulating synths that crackle and pulse along with her voice (which repeats its subject’s name far too many times), ANOHNI directly addresses President Obama for his continuation of drone warfare and intrusive NSA practices. She makes a noble choice to hold all sides accountable with nuance—we just wish she hadn’t abandoned melody to do so.
Best name for Kanye’s latest album: Waves
Worst name for Kanye’s latest album: TLOP (not The Life of Pablo, but its acronym, which has the unfortunate quality of reminding us of tilapia and also of flops.)
Best on Twitter:
my heart is falling out of my ass
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) December 6, 2016
Most tired beef: All beefs.
In 2017, let’s retire beefs.
Reunion we were most onboard with: A Tribe Called Quest
Usually when a group loses a founding member, they may stumble in picking up the pieces. It can lead to a prolonged hiatus, or a stand-in who’s never quite the same. But when Phife Dawg tragically passed away in March, A Tribe Called Quest was already hard at work on their first album in 16 years. And what better way to honor a lifelong friend than to finish the project with a renewed sense of purpose? Released just days apart, the election results and We Got it from Here … Thank You 4 Your Service sound like an unintentional call and response. This might be their final statement, but Tribe sounds like they’re ready to combat the bullshit for another four years—or however long we need them to.
Best album that sounded like early-2000s Phoenix: The 1975’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it*
We live in a time of strained relatability. Carpool Karaoke, Lip Sync Battle, and Paul McCartney doing the #MannequinChallenge have pummeled us with a similar message: Can’t you see, I’m just like you, but hanging out with James Corden! The 1975’s Matty Healy couldn’t care less about this sort of performative schtick. No one else operating in the “biggest band in the world” conversation had the hubris or downright delusion to aim higher than Healy this year. I like it when you sleep, but this album title is ridiculous threw everything it could at the wall, from slinky INXS dance rock to roomy ambient interludes, all from a frontman who’s more untouchable misanthrope than someone you’d bring home to mom and dad. A lot of strange things happened this year, but I never thought The 1975 setting a new bar for M83 and Phoenix would be among them.
* Also winner of Most extra album title of all time.