5 Best Songs & Albums of 2016 (So Far)

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2016 has been a landmine sewed onto a rollercoaster, and the music world shows it. Here’s the best so far:

The big story going into 2015 was the five A-list artists who would all be competing for the Album of the Year publication titles. Rihanna, Drake, Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Adele were all reportedly working on new material. Well, 2015 rolled into 2016 and only the latter got an album out (and it was, by Adele standards, subpar). The fact that we went into the year expecting new albums from those four, but having them all get overshadowed by a new David Bowie album, is pretty indicative of the topsy-turvy nature of the year. The two artists who redefined album releases more than anyone else – Radiohead and Beyonce – not only found ways to do it again, but compete with each other (their albums were released two weeks apart). James Blake, Chance the Rapper, Drake and others all tested out yet another new release formula – scheduled releases. Dates & times – worldwide events. 2016 has already seen some great breakthroughs, too, it’s not all about the vets. Anderson.Paak, Car Seat Headrest and ZAYN have all had their respective cracks into the main market.

But before we talk about the best, we have to address 2016’s biggest issue: the deaths of everyone we loved. Heavy, I know. There was a much more innocent time in early January, when we thought losing Lemmy Kilmister and Scott Weiland was a tough combination. Then the world took Bowie (on the eve of my first class of the semester, which I almost had to skip due to emotions). Then Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Phife Dawg, Maurice White. Then Prince. And not to mention, Alan Rickman, Anton Yelchin and Muhammad Ali. A wrecking ball has made its way through the land of the good celebrities, and there’s no telling where it’s going to stop. But it has hit the music industry hard – hard – taking away a number of important classic rock musicians, country singers and rappers, as well as our two most prominent feminine male singers. It’s been a continuous punch in the stomach, and has made us all worry about the year’s latter half. But while we still can, let’s appreciate the good that has come from the year so far:

Best Songs:

#5. Car Seat Headrest – “Vincent”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

In an age where everyday people can become celebrities on Vine, a source for videos no longer than 6 seconds, we often forget how gratifying a big payoff can be. Our attention spans might be getting shorter, and it has led to a constant, frantic search for new media. We can forget the joys of classic rock – of a 12 minute Jimmy Page solo or a Pink Floyd song that takes 8 minutes to get to the chorus. Have no fear, indie breakthrough Car Seat Headrest is here, with an overstuffed album filled with songs that make us wait for a payoff. Perhaps the best is the 7:45 “Vincent,” which settles around a simple enough riff from the Tom Verlaine clean-guitar handbook while it gradually, gradually builds into a self-deprecating personal ode that’s as 1993 as it is 2007.

#4. David Bowie – “Lazarus”

(Photo Credit: The Daily Mail)

This song was a win-win for Bowie. If he lived long enough to record his next album (which was reportedly already in the works), then it was an excellent late-notch for the Greatest Hits. If he didn’t, and he didn’t, then it worked as a passing ode to one of our heroes (no pun intended). Released as a single only three days – the religious symbolism before he died, the song was meant was as a goodbye, with Bowie looking back on his own career, his successes and his failures. We’re meant to join him, but when he’s this close to leaving us and recording songs this good, it’s hard to think anything negative. A truly emotional song and dizzying music video about a man aware of his own decreasing health and prevalence, it was haunting before Bowie’s passing; now it’s just downright scary, and it’s going to be, for many years.

#3. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam”

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As a multi-faceted and very human performer, Kanye has extremes – there’s the “Yeezus” Kanye, where he records entirely himself and compares himself to God, and the G.O.O.D. Music Kanye, where he gives way to plenty of other performers and boosts careers. This song is the latter, with up-and-comer (and upcoming) Chance the Rapper essentially taking over the song. It’s a loose, easy, quiet gospel track, that emphasizes the importance of religion in the lives of both Kanye and Chance. As the opening track to “The Life of Pablo,” Kanye is hardly a presence, heralding a return to his good-natured days of promoting those who are less famous. Really, this song is Chance and a choir, which he did all across his mixtape. And that’s what makes it one of the songs of the year.

#2. Rihanna – “Higher”

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Remember when I praised that Car Seat Headrest song for delaying a payoff? This Rihanna song clocks in at exactly two minutes, and no longer. It’s not a single – it’s too short. The payoff is immediate; the payoff is getting to listen to Rihanna. It’s two minutes of Rihanna belting like she never has, doing the old “high like drugs = high like love” metaphor. By all means, an album track – but Rihanna reinforces why she’s one of the country’s most successful female singers ever through her utterly heart-wrenching singing. Especially given the ‘anything goes’ nature of “ANTI,” the song is a surprise, a song grounded in pop reality on a messy album that tries to be anything but.

#1. Beyoncé – “Freedom (w/Kendrick Lamar)”

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Fire. Fire, fire, fire, fire, fire. Fire. This song is absolutely fire. Our country’s current greatest singer enlisted the country’s current greatest rapper for a burning track about blackness and the court system. The increasing anger that has blazed both musicians plays off each other in the most natural way possible. It feels more like a Kendrick song at times, with a soundclip from ‘Prisoner 22.’ but Bey’s reignited politics burn just as closely. “Lemonade” is an album filled with personal and national politics, and even if “Freedom” doesn’t fit cleanly into the album’s narrative, it’s an absolute barnburner song for the ages.

Honorable mentions: “Daydreaming” – Radiohead, “No More Parties in LA” – Kanye West/Kendrick Lamar, “Drone Bomb Me” – ANONHI, “Frankie Sinatra” – the Avalanches

Best Albums:

#5. Savages – “Adore Life”

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The women in Savages realized what a score of other bands didn’t – doubling down doesn’t necessarily equate to success. After their critically acclaimed debut album, they spent some time trying to up the ante and write “the heaviest songs ever written.” When that didn’t work, they turned inwards. Their sophomore album is wildly optimistic – it’s about love, and life, and how great the two of them are. But if you’re worried – this is the same band that made a bruiser ode to rough sex called “Hit Me” – you shouldn’t be. Optimism can be the eye of the storm, and that exact moment is what the band went for. Songs like “Adore” and “Sad Person” explore the moments in which you have nothing left to lose but life itself. “T.I.W.Y.G.” and “I Need Something New” are brutally loud tracks that look at those moments when you’re about to lose everything. Loss is an important element of life, and Savages might not have meant to tap into that originally, but they did. And they did it in a brutal, loud way.

#4. Chance the Rapper – “Coloring Book”

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I said he was coming up. The loose feel of this mixtape is defined in Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” where Chance refers to it as ‘Chance 3’ – his third release. As a full release, it feels cohesive, like a bunch of ideas all followed through to their best possible outcomes. But it maintains a real looseness. When Chance feels like owning one of tracks, he does. When he doesn’t, he gives way, to Future, or Bieber, or Jeremih, or any of the other countless collaborators. And it is that loose feel that allows it to succeed so well. He even questions if it’s a mixtape or an album, rapping, “I used to pass out music, I still pass out music.” It is a borderline gospel album, with very religious odes throughout. Multiple tracks feature tongue-in-cheek lyrics about beating up or pranking Satan. He features a cousin on a track, billed simply as “My cousin Nicole.” In a time where rap seems to be making an unexpected reclaim of the religious throne, Chance the Rapper has thrown himself into the ring big time.

#3. David Bowie – “Blackstar”

Man. I just don’t know. It never occurred to me as a music reviewer that I’d ever use the phrase “post-Bowie,” but here we are. Bowie left us this year, presumably to make love in a distant galaxy to an alien with God-given ass. But what a parting gift. With all of the newcomers scoring great hits and albums, it almost feels refreshing to listen to “Blackstar.” At the same time, it’s not like anything Bowie has ever done, and is a piece inspired by one of those newcomers – Kendrick Lamar. Lamar’s blending on last year’s best album invigorated Bowie to make the a late-stage opus. “Blackstar,” in its seven songs, was entirely unexpected. Avant garde, more than Bowie ever was before, yet enthralling and heartbreaking. It isn’t radio material, but at the end of the year, we’re still going to be praising it like it is. Rest in space, fallen star.

#2. and also #1. Radiohead – “A Moon Shaped Pool” and Beyoncé – “Lemonade” 

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I’m grouping these two together, not because they’re similar or because I can’t decide – “Lemonade” is #1. Sorry, whites. But 2016 has blessed us with two soon-to-be legendary albums, and two that absolutely could not be at more opposite ends of the spectrum. Radiohead’s album first: “A Moon Shaped Pool” is an extraordinary look into the pain and turmoil of a failed marriage. Although some of the songs on the album have existed in Radiohead’s live catalog for a while, they’ve taken on a new meaning after Thom Yorke’s divorce. “Daydreaming” and “Glass Eyes” are as haunting and engrossing as anything on “OK Computer, ” and the flow of the album’s early tracks rivals that of “Kid A.” In ten years time, we might look back on “A Moon Shaped Pool” in the same vein as those two now-classics. It is a breathtaking, tormenting and demanding album that showcases everything that Radiohead does best. It flows remarkably well, like a morose “Abbey Road,” and centers on heartbreak as synths and strings alternately hug and fight like a passionate argument. At times it feels like something you’re not supposed to be hearing, but quite the opposite: it’s a public airing of grievances.

Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” is the polar opposite in every way – a sonic narrative journey that is as much of a concept album as “The Wall.” While Radiohead have always been upfront with their own emotions, the listener has no idea if the story presented on “Lemonade” is true, or to what extent. A fellow heartbreak album, we learn early of infidelity and listen (and watch) Beyoncé go through stages of grief: anger, sadness, acceptance, forgiveness. It’s an extraordinarily well-calculated album. And unlike Radiohead’s flow and unique sound, Beyoncé aims to hit as many different notes as she can. The album incorporates pop, rap, R&B, blues rock and even country into the most cohesive outing of the year. And amidst the adulterous narrative are frequent comments on the state of black women. Much to the chagrin of old white racists, the best album of 2016 so far (and, honestly, probably all year) is all about female empowerment. From shooting “Formation” scenes amidst a still-ruined New Orleans to cameos ranging from Serena Williams to Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, Beyoncé does not hold back about how America is failing the black woman. It’s a call to arms for equality for the most unnecessarily disrespected American. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s unstoppable. It’s also self-sustaining: nearly all criticism directed towards “Lemonade” is racially- and/or sexually-toned, which only further showcases the album’s importance. The album might feature Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, and left-field choices like James Blake and Jack White, but it’s all Beyoncé’s show. Everyone else can step aside.

The two best albums of the year so far both center around heartbreak, and they couldn’t be more different: the former, a consistent, melancholic ode filled with synth-y density, the latter a remarkably and intentionally inconsistent range of emotions and influences. Ultimately, Beyoncé settles and reconciles, while Radiohead stay fitfully gloomy, and it’s what shapes both albums. But, it doesn’t even really matter, because the closure or lack thereof is not what either artist is searching for. Both albums are clotheslines, leaving everything out to dry, but they’re blowing in total opposite directions.

Honorable mentions: Anderson .Paak – “Malibu,” Iggy Pop – “Post Pop Depression,” Car Seat Headrest – “Teens of Denial,” School of Seven Bells – “SVIIB”

Check back in at the end of the year to see if Beyoncé can hold on to these titles, and if Frank Ocean has ever released his album.

-By Andrew McNally

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