There are few words about this year that are not written in some sort of substance on bathroom walls. The general consensus from your aunt’s Facebook status and CNN news headlines alike are that this year has gone the opposite direction of expected – generally for the worse. It’s now an easy way around religion and politics to shoot your distant-cousin’s first, second, and third comment about the election down with a simple “Man, this year has been nuts!” Even politicians would likely agree that political discourse over an accidentally char-broiled holiday turkey is unnecessary this time around.
There is one unsung hero this year that few have failed to take notice of. The music world was on fire with rampant competition and fans couldn’t be happier. A year ago, if you would have walked up to any station’s Music Director and told them that this year would see a new LP from the Avalanches, Radiohead, Dinosaur Jr., A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Frank Ocean, and a categorically good Beyoncé album – we couldn’t really tell you what the reaction would be, but it would be some shade of disbelief.
Below are the Top Ten Albums of this year submitted to KJHK by our wonderful listeners. Carefully compiled, a single is embedded in each of these album titles to provide and example of what you may have missed. Keep it locked and enjoy the holiday season.
(NOTE: Titles with an asterisk [*] denote NSFW videos)
Wildflower has been the subject of countless fan theories for the past 16 years or so, as that was the span of time between the Avalanches crashing debut Since I Left You and their sophomore album here. A plunderphonics dream of wonder and cartoonish vulgarity, dark themes rest under a ’70s/’80s-influenced sampling extravaganza. Though this album is much more cohesive than the debut and yields less stand-alone thumpers, it doesn’t take much time to warm up to the Avalanches’ new direction.
Where Since I left You was an 18-track dance through a tropical city at night with funky and low hanging beats, Wildflower is its 21-track groovy sister hopping through sunny fields maintaining solid dance hits like “Subways” or “If I Was A Folkstar.” This compounded with samples and features from MF Doom, Danny Brown, Father John Misty, Ariel Pink and more makes it a worthy sonic escapade.
Bon Iver has had a knack for being quiet about his releases. Many Bon Iver fans had lamented their concern about what this album could have been. There were fears that a Grammy-win would go to his head as well as a cornucopia of predictions that Justin Vernon’s friends like Kanye West would pull the sound in an entirely uncomfortable direction. Thankfully, the answer to some of these fears are a duality.
Yes, Justin Vernon has picked up considerable influence from his friends – but this isn’t a bad thing. The fears were that this album would be a stinking garbage heap reeking of pretentiousness and “It’s the new thing bro, I actually like this;” however, what we got was a solid departure from Vernon’s previous work and something still listenable. A lot of noise is hidden within the album that attempts to confuse the listener (“Is that a Charles Manson sample in the background?”) but the heart of each song remains the heartfelt meaning and humanity behind each lyric. The duality is essentially: yeah, it’s as weird as expected but still pretty good.
We Got It From Here is a perfect cocktail of nostalgia, maturity, progression, and activism. Dropped essentially out of the blue, A Tribe Called Quest pulled together one last time to record what many would call their most relevant and heavy-hitting releases to date. Each track is political and groovy – with thumping samples and a chemistry typical of east-coast collectives that is perfected on this LP.
In March of 2016, Malik Izaak Taylor AKA Phife Dawg passed away due to complications related to diabetes. Though he maintains an active role on this stand-out hip-hop album, his absence is reworked and a large double meaning is applied to many of these tracks. As the Saturday Night Live performance this year shows, the trio remains three with the absence of a major voice.
Comprised of two members of the now-defunct Smith Westerns, Whitney sufficiently sheds any pretensions or expectations that critics would have held about them. Instead, Whitney delivers a folk-rock, soft-spoken but heavy-hitting kind of vibe. Perhaps one of the most well-received debuts this year, Light Upon The Lake adds up to be something much larger than relaxed warm guitar melodies.
The lyrics hit heavy to a new generation of romanticism and the song structure is solidly folk-rock. Falsettos and horns are key features to most of these songs as there is a strong Neutral Milk Hotel influence on much of this record. It is truly a love-it or hate-it sort of LP. This album proved to be very successful here at KJHK.
After Kendrick Lamar dragged the hip-hop focus out of the south and back to the west-coast, Danny Brown pulled it towards Detroit this year with one of the most successful experimental albums of this generation of rappers. Spooky and grimey, Atrocity Exhibition is a dark exploration of Danny Brown’s experience and in many ways, this album is one of his greatest triumphs.
Named after the Joy Division song, the beats on this album are broody and teeming with an unconventional sonic landscape. From samples of the Bavarian Kraut-rock wonder-group Embryo on “Goldust” to a chain-rattling backbeat that shouldn’t work but does on “Pneumonia,” these tracks venture far out of what most rappers are remotely comfortable doing. Yet this record adequately marries its heavy tones and themes with Brown’s trademark hype.
Best said by KJHK content director Cody Boston in his review:
“99.9% is the perfect example of the best things that can come from artist collaboration. With features from talents such as BADBADNOTGOOD, Anderson Paak, Little Dragon, GoldLink, and others, Kaytranda proves his ability to pair his groovy beats strongly with veterans of any genre, always allowing his guests’ style to mold the track while maintaining presence through brilliant musical construction.
99.9% is constantly keeping the listener engaged, allowing no two tracks to sound alike. Even so, the talented producer transitions and blends into each song masterfully, never missing a beat and keeping the vibe bumpin’. This album is a promising glimpse into the future of Kaytranda’s releases we won’t be able to stop listening to.”
When Blackstar was dropped, fans and critics alike noticed that there was something odd about this album – a deeper meaning. It is much less so that the sound was so unexpectedly pioneering for artists today of David Jones’ (AKA David Bowie) caliber – but rather that beneath the tastes of freeform jazz, irregular song structure and Arcade Fire-esque production were these cryptic and matter-of-fact lyrics that hinted towards some large invisible elephant of a meaning. Then Bowie passed away on January 7th, 2016 and forever left his mark on what an artist and performer can do for our culture.
Blackstar is simply a good album. David Jones does not pretentiously rehash what he has already done – instead he does something much cooler. Jones’ work here is a phenomena where he listens to the artists that he has influenced, and then those artists clearly influence his music. This important aspect of what an older important artist should do now was sadly shadowed by his passing – although it added a whole new level of genius and double meaning, finally allowing listeners to see the aforementioned invisible elephant. David Jones is dead, but Blackstar proves that David Bowie lives on in influence and culture.
It is best to be honest about this record. Listeners that were not fans of Radiohead before, probably would not enjoy A Moon Shaped Pool. It is arguably their most abstract, disassembled, and emotionally deprived LP to date. Yet it works with these modifiers so damn well. “LP9” is somewhere between Amnesiac and King Of Limbs in sound, yet it brings so much more to the table. There are songs about alien invasions, the hopelessness in the aftermath of a failed relationship and the man-made destruction of the climate. Eat your heart out, Michael Bublé.
The instrumentation on this record is incredibly varied. “Ful Stop” is a In Rainbows level of drum machine guitar-beat breakdown. “Present Tense” is a pseudo-flamenco punctuated by a twisting acoustic riff. The long-awaited recorded release of “True Love Waits” is a slippery keyboard of sad bubbling sound. There is obviously more hidden behind each sound, but this was truly a record for the fans and a must-listen.
The skepticism and drama surrounding Frank Ocean’s Blonde on internet social media platforms like Twitter is worthy of a bubble-bath reading session. Following a recent trend of leading his fans on a goose-chase (looking at you, Beyoncé and Radiohead) the hype on Blonde was bound to be unmatched. This LP is a double edged sword. It is a solid release and remains boundary-pushing along with the visual album Endless; however, Blonde fell flat among some of Ocean’s biggest fans.
Much like Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool many – if not most – of the songs on this album lack form and substance as far as instrumentation goes. This allows for Frank Ocean to experiment with rhyme and meter, yet without a solid backbone to each song there was little chance that these songs would become hits on the radio. This trade-off between lyrical/instrumental uniformity and musical satisfaction and order is both successful and alienating. Above all, Frank Ocean is able to reaffirm that he is a jewel of modern R&B and able to explore themes that most of his contemporaries have yet to skirt by.
It was expected. Car Seat Headrest wunderkind Will Toledo smashed the indie scene once again with an angsty bundle of crunchy guitar and moaning annoyance that major music outlets like Pitchfork would call central to any good bildungsroman album. Coming of age is a bit too restrictive of a category in this case, as it does neglect the exploration and unadulterated fun that accompanies each track.
Car Seat Headrest manages to break down the barrier of expectations placed on them with the break out Teens of Style from last year with a tone more serious and dire about the ailments of misunderstandings. There are songs about love, disenfranchisement, and even a healthy dose of existentialism. It is a record worthy of #1 and a worthy feat to stand-out among our listeners with such fierce competition this year.