2016 has been described by many as a raging dumpster fire of a year. In a lot of ways, that doesn’t feel inaccurate. It’s certainly been a tumultuous year politically, culturally, globally. However, if there’s one positive takeaway from 2016–and I really need there to be a positive takeaway–it’s the music. THE MUSIC. With everything else that’s happened this year, with all of the tears and heartaches and clown sightings, it’s kind of hard to remember all of the amazing albums that came out. That’s why we enlisted you, our beloved readers, to help us out with our End of The Year in Music polls. The results are in, and the people have spoken: The following list is just a snapshot of the tunes that sustained us this year, of the artists that gave us hope or solace or a much-needed distraction.
1. Frank Ocean—Blonde
We at WIUX voted and we did not choose Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Instead we picked an arguably better record (this very article is one such argument) but one that will almost certainly not enjoy the same legacy. Our album of the year is Frank Ocean’s willfully obscure Blonde.
A meditation on how virtual space affects human relations and the fallibility of memory, Blonde finds Frank digitally warping his voice across its seventeen tracks. Those effects run from unintentionally cartoonish to deeply affecting. Adding to the voices are the confounding skits, among them an answering machine message warning about the dangers of alcohol and marijuana. The features from Kendrick Lamar, Yung Lean, and yes, Beyoncé, barely give those stars anything to do. “So Long (Reprise),” a 90 second rap from Andre 3000, ends before it really begins.
But beneath the voices, the skits and the guests are some of the finest songs of Frank’s career. Tracks like “Nikes,” “Self Control,” and “White Ferrari” find Frank balancing hedonism and heartbreak compellingly. They’re also some of Frank’s most surprising songs; in the middle of a decade where the guitar’s been declared dead, Blonde was brave enough to lean on the instrument for most of its runtime.
After a series of missed deadlines (many announced by Frank through his own Twitter account), Blonde arrived exclusively for streaming on Apple Music the day after its sister visual album Endless. If you wanted a physical copy, you needed to live in one of four major cities playing host to a Frank pop up shop and be the kind of fan willing to spend $80 on the magazine, Boys Don’t Cry. Should you have wished to hear Blonde on your turntable, you needed to buy it online during Black Friday.
In spite of all that, Blonde will not be remembered like Lemonade. Frank will almost certainly not upstage Chris Martin at the Super Bowl halftime show. Frank will not debut his next visual album on HBO, nor has Blonde been nominated for a single Grammy. But maybe that’s how Frank, free from any major label, wants it. He made a record on his own terms. It’s only fitting that we approach it on those terms.
2. Whitney—Light Upon the Lake
Light Upon the Lake, the debut album from Whitney, is scarily good–like, off-puttingly perfect. This album is that miraculous kid in high school who was somehow good at sports, band, and art–gifted and beloved and astonishingly chill. Light Upon the Lake is like that; a bit infuriating, but impossible not to love.
People who attended this year’s Culture Shock got to experience Whitney’s majesty firsthand, so it wasn’t at all surprising to us that their subsequent release of Light Upon the Lake was a triumph. The album opens with the single, “No Woman.” It’s groovy and manages to sound at once relaxed and incredibly well thought-out. It’s that balance that runs through the album and elevates it above the myriad of solid releases this year. The album leans heavily into nostalgia while keeping both feet planted in the present. Light Upon the Lake set the bar pretty high for Whitney, but we can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
3. Chance The Rapper—Coloring Book
Three years and fourteen days after his last project, Acid Rap, I pressed play on Chance 3. The music started and I felt like I was on an ultralight beam, which is a Kanye reference. Speaking of Kanye, he did the hook for the first track, “All We Got.” Chance combined this with an accompaniment of children’s choir, a Beyoncé name drop, and a verse about making tea. “This album is an instant classic,” I said only 3 minutes in.
Then came “No Problem,” which got me more hype than I thought was possible. 2 Chainz exploded onto the track with the line “school of hard knocks, I took night classes,” which inspired me to sign up for a night class on Shakespearean poetry right there so that I could fully realize Chainz’ symbolism. Lil Wayne followed up with his first verse in four years that I actually liked. “Overall, it’s a banger,” I typed into a comment section, adding five flame emojis directly after.
“This piece of art was shared with me for free. How dare I criticize it? I owe Chance nothing but a 6 out of 7 rating on wiux.org,” I typed, finishing my album review. I set the timer on my phone for 2019, and began the wait for Chance 4.
4. Car Seat Headrest—Teens of Denial
What makes Will Toledo, frontman and brains behind Car Seat Headrest, stand above his plethora of indie rock contemporaries? Many a time we’ve seen the composition of Car Seat Headrest before. Loud guitars, loud drumming, bombastic choruses, and a witty self-deprecating white boy right on top of it all. The difference here is that this white boy knows how to write a damn good song and has a knack for what I call “song sense.” Toledo has a seemingly intrinsic knowledge of how long a song should be or when it needs to be loud or how long intros need to be or when extra instrumentation would really push a song to the next level. Everything fits. It’s this aspect of Toledo that has propelled him from the depths of bandcamp where he was recording in the back of his mom’s car (hence the name Car Seat Headrest) into the hearts of Indieheads and onto the bill for musical guest on the Tonight Show. Of all the new artists in 2016, you can be rest assured that Will Toledo has carved out one of the brightest futures for himself, and deservedly so.
5. Kanye West—The Life of Pablo
When Kanye West debuted his sixth solo record The Life of Pablo at Madison Square Garden back in February, it was a mess. Ten months later, it still might be. The production, consistently Kayne’s greatest strength, required heavy remixing following the record’s rushed release. And that’s to say nothing of the lyrics: aggressively stupid and unapologetically sexist, they lack the punk provocation of Yeezus or the wounded genius of 808s and Heartbreak.
But Kanye’s life isn’t exactly in order, either. Days after Pablo’s release he announced on Twitter his $53 million debt. Then Kim got robbed in her Paris apartment. Later Kanye had a breakdown at a health spa and recovered just in time to dye his hair blond before a much publicized meeting with Donald Trump. For context: just 10 years’ prior, Kanye stared down a camera next to a petrified Mike Myers on live television during a Hurricane Katrina telethon before stammering the now immortal sentence, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
But somehow through the debt, violence and mood swings, The Life of Pablo kept people talking. And talking. And, as the record’s place on this list suggests, still talking. Having undergone three major revisions, Pablo still isn’t perfect. Often the ideas hinted at in Pablo’s still rough-sounding cuts are more intoxicating than the songs themselves. Still, it’s a living, breathing album as confounding, imperfect, and yes, probably genius, as the man who created it.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is more than just a standout album: it’s a standout piece of art. Her sixth album, and her second visual album, focuses on betrayal and forgiveness as Beyoncé tells the tale of what it is like to realize that your husband is cheating on you. By now we’ve all heard of “Becky with the good hair” and seen Beyoncé wielding a baseball bat, but there’s so much more to this album. There’s poetry written by Warsan Shire that separates the sections of the album that is goosebump-inducing.
There is attention in the visual album given to victims of police brutality. There was conversation that focused on the strong, black female in light of both Lemonade and Beyoncè’s performance of “Formation” at the Super Bowl. There are genre crossovers with the country tune, “Daddy Issues” and the Jack White feature on “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” There was an 8 month tour that captured the essence of both the visual aspect and the musical aspect of the album (The audio was THX certified to be the best audio it could possibly be and DJ Khaled opened so you know it was an absolutely beautiful experience). To sum it all up: the music is strong, the lyrics are poetic, and the visual component is cinematic–there’s nothing to dislike about this album.
7. Angel Olsen—My Woman
My Woman by Angel Olsen was to some extent the fulfillment of our indie queen’s inevitable triumph. Despite her early days of yodeling, Olsen turned to more rock-oriented folk on Burn Your Fire and the line follows with My Woman. The album is a celebration, probe, and dismissal of what it means to be a woman in an age of gender’s explosion. It seethes and breathes with the unfulfilled promises of men and masculinity in relation to love and power. From the sneak attack of “Intern” to the raw power of “Sister” it demands to be felt in the gut. Olsen’s interviews as of late have shown a more playful side. She demanded to not be seen as some sad indie witch in the woods, but also a roller-skater, a popstar, and a more urban witch in the style of Stevie Nicks. Nothing prepared us for the wrenching ballad of “Pops” and nothing will prepare us for her next work.
8. Bon Iver- 22, A Million
The thing that makes 22, A Million so special is that nothing like this record has ever been made before. The way that Justin Vernon uses his voice as an independent instrument and brings the saxophone (credited as the “Sad Sax of Shit”) to a sort of melancholic renaissance is something that’s been thought of, but never executed with such precision. Bon Iver came through undeniably with the sound of nostalgia and dejection that we expect from him, but with the type of engineering perspective you would hear on a Kanye West project. Despite clocking in at under 35 minutes, the crackled samples and orchestra of digital synthesizers paired with Vernon’s haunting lyrical repertoire and folk foundation result in what we may be calling his Magnum Opus decades from now. At the very least we can hold solace in the fact that it was one of 2016’s most impressive outputs, musical or otherwise, and that we were here to see the masterpiece unfold.
On their studio debut, Cardinal, New Jersey’s Pinegrove manages to couple nostalgia for the past with a hesitantly optimistic outlook on the future. With tracks like “Old Friends,” frontman Evan Stephens Hall captures the self-depreciation and sense of regret that comes with letting friendships slip by unappreciated, while songs like “Then Again” feature bouncy guitar riffs that glide along easily, and showcase the “alternative” side of the alt-country genre they’ve been frequently labeled with. Combining a style that is equal parts twangy modern folk with punk-tinged indie rock (think early Wilco meets LIFTED-era Bright Eyes), Cardinal effortlessly navigates the space between growing up, growing apart, and moving forward.
10. Mitski—Puberty 2
Mitski’s fourth studio album, Puberty 2, lets us delve even deeper into the artist’s world as well as our own. Her deeply personal album was well-received by critics and earned her a spot on multiple top music lists as well as a performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She continues building the album as a very varied work of art; songs like “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” which is fast and face reality almost violently, sit in the same album as slower, whispery songs like, “A Burning Hill.”
She goes to different places vocally and emotionally than in her previous album, which is best shown through “Your Best American Girl.” Perhaps the best indie rock song of 2016, Mitski sings of wanting to become another way for who she wants to be with, but then realizes that she could never be that way. It’s heartbreaking and sad but by the end, she realizes that she can exist in her own way; “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I finally do.” This song shows just how powerful of a musician Mitski can be, her lyrics are vulnerable but through it all, the sound is still somehow emboldening. In Puberty 2, Mitski makes universal her own intimate struggles in love, life, and even racial identity.
Best New Artists
While Whitney’s members aren’t new to the indie music world (the band is comprised of former Smith-Westerns members), this band owned 2016 in a major way. Light Upon the Lake was a dazzling and formative first LP. The videos for their singles, “No Woman” and “No Matter Where We Go,” are dreamy and perfectly aligned with the band’s musical aesthetic.
The band put out their debut record on local label, Secretly Canadian and has subsequently toured all over the US and abroad–most notably making a pitstop at 2016’s Culture Shock in Dunn Meadow. With their groovy, timeless sounds, Whitney has true staying power.
Noname (fka Noname Gypsy) released her debut mixtape, Telefone, in July of this year. Prior to this release, we were fortunate enough to get a taste of her talent in great features with Chance, SABA, and Mick Jenkins. Her style–intimate, melancholy, and joyful all at once–has left many impressed. In a very hope-borne-from-grief manner she raps about living in Chicago, the plight and pain of being a black woman, remembrances of those black women who’ve come before her and disappeared into undeserved obscurity, and so much more. Every word and phrase seems like poetry, so much so that you’ll want to listen and re-listen to not miss a single thing.
2016 was a big year for hometown heroes, Hoops. They played this year’s Culture Shock, got signed to Fat Possum, recorded and Audiotree Live session, and spent some time supporting Whitney on the road. While it is very likely that you’ve seen some iteration of Hoops perform at a crowded house show here in Bloomington, 2016 has seen this band’s steady climb to bigger audiences and tighter arrangements. Hoops’ Tape #3 and first Fat Possum release garnered a lot of buzz for these Hoosier dudes.
Tracks like “Cool 2” and “Gemini” have a definite soundtrack-of-summer quality to them. And it’s kind of impossible not to like Hoops’ brand of lo-fi, dazed-out pop. The band has got a steady stream of tour dates lined up for the first part of 2017.
While Car Seat Headrest isn’t exactly new, Will Toledo has been recording songs in his car for years, 2016 was a breakout moment for the band. 2015’s Teens of Style, which was a compilation album, was Car Seat’s first Matador release. This year’s Teens of Denial put Toledo and co. on the map in a real and completely deserving way.
The album opens with “Fill in the Blank” and demands your absolute attention for 12 tracks. The album is intense, bleak, and wildly compelling. The lyrics on this album deal with depression and pain in an incredibly self-aware way. Toledo blazes through each track, sometimes screaming, sometimes singing, and he leaves nothing unscathed–especially himself. Teens of Denial is raw and honest and exactly was 2016 needed.
After finally making their studio debut after six years together, Pinegrove impressed and intrigued this year with their interesting mix of genres and effortless melodies. Hailing from Montclair, New Jersey, the band is composed of front man and songwriter Evan Stephans Hall, Josh Marre and Sam Skinner on guitar, Nandi Plunkett on keys, Adan Carlo on bass, and Zack Levine on drums. This year, the band released their LP Cardinal with Run for Cover Records. Their other works include their self-released album, Meridian in 2012 and a compilation cassette titled Everything so Far in 2015.
Pinegrove’s sound combines indie rock with what many consider alt-country, and their debut impacts anyone who listens by resurrecting the indie sound of the late 90s. In Cardinal, front man Hall touches on friendships, old and new, and brings forward the nostalgia of his experience with his wide vocal range. The band will travel to the United Kingdom and a few other areas of Europe in a two-month tour in February and March of 2017. Pinegrove has proven they have the ability to relate to anyone, and for that reason I know they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Jonathan Van Hecke
Despite the prelapsarian nature of the name, serpentwithfeet is the sheer metamorphosis of Josiah Wise, church-born and classically trained singer turned 2016’s tattoo-faced siren of experimental soul. On his debut EP, blisters (Tri Angle), Wise broaches the intensity of self, assembling a prototypical goth gospel as he mulls over the intricacies of his own lucidities, miseries, loves and scorns as a queer artist.
The virtue of serpentwithfeet is properly derived from Wise’s mastery of voice, applying the honeyed euphonia of soul technique and timbre to more exploratory compositions. With production assistance from label-mate The Haxan Cloak–his fingerprints in the skull-shaking low frequencies–serpantwithfeet establish a sound of demolished electronics and arrangements which flirt with the cinematic, at times like James Blake’s dovish lilt, at others like a lost and hammering movement from Fantasia. Where the ambition to mix inspirations easily could have spiraled into an inoffensive thrum of ambience and noise, Wise has struck a singular and instantaneous balance of style. In light of the majesty of his first work, serpentwithfeet deserves the moment.
7. Lil Yachty
Lil Yachty stepped into the spotlight with hair the same color as the cover of his studio debut Lil Boat in early 2016. This first mixtape showcased not only Lil Yachty, but also his alter ego, the very stern MC Lil Boat. Stand out tracks included the intoxicatingly catchy “Minnesota” and “One Night,” a tune about how Yachty wants to spend exactly that long with a girl. His woozy and weird sound was noted as often as his eclectic style, which landed him a spot in the Yeezy season 3 fashion show. Following Lil Boat‘s success, Yachty also had a feature on the most overplayed song of the year: “Broccoli” and joined the man of the year, Chance the Rapper, on “Mixtape.” In July, Lil Yachty released Summer Songs 2 which unsurprisingly garnered far less attention than Lil Boat. With a top 40 hit, 2 releases, and the best hair of the year, it’s hard to deny that Lil Yachty was one of the best new artists of 2016.
In both sound and subject matter, London’s Kero Kero Bonito is a breath of fresh air in pop sensibilities. Sonically and aesthetically, they take a lot from J- and K-pop, but they also dip into the pallets of their fellow countrymen over at PC Music/bubblegum bass. Singer Sarah Bonito effortlessly trades verses in both English and Japanese, and tracks like 2014’s “Flamingo” demonstrate the group’s extraordinary talent for crafting melody. Their 2016 debut, Bonito Generation, is refreshing and radiating in youthful exuberance. In many ways, this youthfulness is what defines their music–lyrically Bonito offers a very childlike perspective on the day to day struggles of life as a young adult. In the wrong hands this would come off as corny, but KKB pull it off with an amazing amount of charm and wit, in both the vocals and the production.The melodies and the brilliance of nearly every chorus on this album are such that if you ever wanted to know what it feels like to get a sugar high from listening to music, Kero Kero Bonito was made just for you.
Anohni, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, gave her solo debut this year with the experimental electronic album, HOPELESSNESS. Formerly performing under the name Antony Hegarty, Anohni’s music is characterized by themes of political and environmental consciousness over dreamy, electronica beats reminiscent of late 1980’s dance music. Anohni earned her place on our end-of-year post by maintaining accessibility and re-listen value while still discussing the hard stuff. In an interview with NPR, Anohni said in regards to her solo debut, “I was beginning to feel like my work was too passive and my participation was too passive…I wanted to raise my voice. Because I feel like raising your voice is the antidote to a sense of powerlessness. I mean, hopelessness is a feeling, not a fact.”
Kaytranada’s entry into 2016 was full of simple joy. His Fader interview earlier in the year revealed a gay person stepping out into the light with a revised vision: sunshine. 99.9% wiggles, grooves, and worms through a variety of co-singers, beats, and rhythms–his music shows someone who can adapt style, melody, and rhyme to fit neo-soul party vibes and then reverse them. “You’re the One” exudes a confidence few new artists show in their first year. Also who gets to release a remix of Rihanna in their first year to rave appeal? The smile seen on Kaytranada’s face reveals something beautifully powerful in the face of a dark year: a proud black gay man.