2016 may be remembered as the year that a number of great artists passed away, but it was not without some seriously impressive releases from a diversity of genres. Here are the Bull & Bear’s top picks (and disappointments!) from the categories of R&B, Hip Hop, Alternative, Rock, Pop, and Punk.
2016 was a big year for R&B. From major comebacks (Frank Ocean) to new, impressive acts (Anderson .Paak), it’s hard to be absolutely sure which album stands out. If you found it hard to settle on a top pick for the year like we did, you might as well just listen to the whole set. After all, not only were there several successful R&B albums this year, but they were all quite different from each other.
Success: Solange — A Seat at the Table
If your older sister is the near undisputed queen of pop, you have a tough act to follow. Solange has impressed many on some features, but hasn’t caught as much attention with her solo work. A Seat at the Table presents a change in this trend and is readily comparable to R&B milestones like Channel Orange. The album is a confident and elegant expression of independence that marks one of 2016’s best releases.
Honourable Mentions: Blood Orange — Freetown Sound, Anderson .Paak — Malibu, Noname — Telefone, Frank Ocean — Blonde.
Disappointment: The Weeknd — Starboy
Starboy is an album that tells us something reassuring about pop music: blandness and lack of risk-taking does not make an enjoyable pop album, even if the genre often sticks to established tropes. The Weeknd started his career with a unique and dark take on R&B music. It was a sound that has generated a massive buzz around the Scarborough native. But little by little, it feels like he has whittled away at this initial appeal in his pursuit of a wider audience. Though this tactic may have boosted record sales, it hasn’t been worth a plunge into mediocrity.
As with R&B, the Hip-Hop scene was crammed with impressive releases this year. From instant bangers, to provocative jazz/rap numbers, there are too many releases in this genre to give a comprehensive account of all the highs and lows. Here are the albums that stood out the most to us.
Success: Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition
Is Danny Brown just a feature rapper? 2013’s Old suggested that the Detroit rapper only had a few catchy hooks in him, and not much consistency. Atrocity Exhibition is a smorgasbord of hip-hop successes. This album showcases Brown’s classic aggressive flow, but it’s much more than just a collection of bangers. There is serious storytelling as well as tasteful production on this album. The diversity showcased on Atrocity Exhibition makes it stand out.
Honourable Mentions: A Tribe Called Quest — We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, Young Thug — JEFFERY, YG — Still Brazy.
Disappointment: Drake — Views
The releases leading up to this album secured the 6-God a spot at the very top of the rap game. He was — and arguably still is — the biggest force in pop and rap music of the past few years. Some of the great tracks released on the way to this album should not be ignored, but these gems were drowned out by a majority of duds. We still love you, Aubrey.
Success: David Bowie — Blackstar
The iconic musician passed through all manner of musical and aesthetic phases and has everything from rock anthems to catchy dance numbers under his belt. Each of phase Bowie’s career was as unique as it was effective, and in this respect Blackstar is no different. On his final album, Bowie landed on a dark, and unfortunately, prophetic tone. Though Bowie’s career surely shouldn’t be remembered entirely through the grim lens of hopelessness and death that Blackstar presents, the album nonetheless shows us an utterly personal glimpse into the artist’s final years as he comes to terms with his own death. The instrumentation feels fresh, does not rest too heavily on any previously explored tropes and combines well with the Bowie’s aged voice. Listening to this album may prompt you to listen to some of Bowie’s earlier work (perhaps in reminiscence of brighter themes) but that doesn’t make this album any less compelling from start to finish.
Honourable Mentions: Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool, Bon Iver — 22, A Million.
Disappointment: Animal Collective — Painting With
The eclectic experimental trio returned with a strange mishmash of idiosyncratic tunes. Though surely part of the nature of ‘experimental’ music is that the experiments don’t always turn out perfectly, the group has shown on past albums that their strangeness can still present consistent vision and even pop appeal. The same cannot be said about Painting With unfortunately. Perhaps fans of the group will enjoy it here and there, but for now, I’ll stick with “My Girls.”
Success: Mitski — Puberty 2
Mitski’s Puberty 2 is a beautiful collection of singer-songwriter rock. Mitski demonstrates an incredible knack for writing simple, yet effective, rock songs. The simple chord progressions and melodies are effectively delivered, whether it be on soft ballads, more explosive rock numbers, or a mix of the two. Her vocals lend an irreplaceable elegant character to the music as she drifts seamlessly between soft crooning and a powerful full-bodied delivery. The strength of the album is further bolstered by the memorable lyrics about heartbreak. Puberty 2 is a beautiful expression of identity that shows that straightforward songwriting can still carry incredible emotive power if the microphone is in the right hands.
Honourable Mention: Iggy Pop — Post Pop Depression
Disappointment: Red Hot Chili Peppers — The Getaway
Another dud album from former chart topping rockstars that is unfortunately not surprising, given the band’s recent track record. Nothing in particular stands out on this project and it leaves me wondering whether the band’s sound was a novelty of its time. There’s nothing sloppy about the execution about any of these tracks, and no one questions the band’s technical prowess, but the result still feels flat.
Success: Beyonce — Lemonade
The often lauded pop queen lives up to her title in a impressive show of diversity as well as typical vocal prowess. This album dips its feet in all sorts of different genres, from blues country to pop bangers, to great effect. This isn’t just an effective pop album because most of tracks are catchy and danceable, but also because the album was coloured with consistent and topical themes, ranging from Beyonce’s personal life to the United States’ current social climate. This album is worth of careful listening just as much as it is worthy of being blasted at a house party.
Honourable Mention: ANOHNI — Hopelessness.
Disappointment: M83 — Junk
How unfortunate for the name of your album to match its content. M83 exists in this odd musical area between electronic pop producers and pop rock musicians. This worked to their advantage on the 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming with hugely successful singles like “Midnight City,” and though Junk attempts something similar, it never hits its stride with some catchy melody or lush soundscape that the band is known for. Junk comes off as shallow and uneventful.
Success: Preoccupations — Preoccupations
Formerly Viet Cong, (and ‘Women’ even before that) this Calgary outfit has been through several unstable iterations, but on Preoccupations, they show consistency and growth. Their previous album as Viet Cong was fantastic in its own right, and Preoccupations only solidifies the group’s presence as a (hopefully) lasting member of the post-punk scene.
Disappointment: Green Day — Revolution Radio
The distant memory of Green Day as a good pop-punk band grows ever foggier. Please stop.