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It's been an emotional year. Accordingly, the albums on our critics' collaborative list of the year's best are a bit political, a bit gospel, a bit cosmic and a lot existential.
As we look back at 2016, David Bowie’s 25th and final album seemed to be looking forward. Released two days before the rock icon succumbed to liver cancer at 69, Blackstar’s foreboding astutely set the tone for a year full of uncertainty. But for an album full of references to death and illness, it remains thrillingly alive and endlessly listenable. Experimenting with new musical terrain, Bowie blends chaotic cosmic jazz with his classically minded songwriting and genteel pop melodies, deftly positioning himself as a sturdy – albeit spectral-sounding – force between colliding worlds. That he sounds so confident in the face of imminent death makes Blackstar extra-bittersweet in retrospect, but somehow also more reassuring. A definite high point in its creator’s inimitable catalogue.
Deeply felt and gorgeously arranged, Solange’s third album marks a watershed for an artist who clearly lives and breathes R&B. There is an effusiveness but also a sense of precision about Solange’s harmonies and vocal arrangements, which frame her classic influences within current R&B’s less-is-more aesthetic. Similarly, the lyrics place A Seat At The Table on the long spectrum of political R&B/soul about Blackness and economic justice, while urgently plugging in to present discourse. This is an album full of endless ideas – musical, personal and political.
This Polaris-Prize-longlisted orch pop record nabbed the hearts of many a music fan by the year’s end, thanks to the Regina-raised, Toronto-based Shauf’s flawless songwriting, deft arrangements and production (he wrote, recorded and played everything on it aside from the strings), and sweet, humble singing about being on the outside looking in. It’s a master class in the mighty power of quiet and gentle.
What does it mean to produce art on one’s own terms and also succeed financially in 2016? Are those two things at odds? Kanye West is determined to prove otherwise, and so The Life Of Pablo takes listeners on an exhilarating and terrifying roller coaster through constantly shifting genres, samples and voices that mainline the listener into his brain without sparing all the ugliness and beauty that that entails.
A bit of a grower, Natalie Mering’s third record becomes increasingly impressive with each listen, its stunning blend of psychy 60s folk and 70s Carpenters’ vibes all filtered through a modern and vaguely experimental singer/songwriter’s lens. Each song is full of movement, and we can’t wait till she’s filling the seats in Massey Hall – exactly the venue for her sonorous voice and intimate songs.
Hopelessness was an easy 5-Ns upon its release in May due to Anohni’s (formerly Antony Hegarty) capacity to simultaneously examine geopolitical problems of the day (ecocide, war, Obama’s presidency, the death penalty) and the emotional implications of mass apathy – all delivered through her devastated and trembling vibrato. An almost overwhelmingly powerful listen, it’s of the moment and completely necessary.
Even if you feel Justin Vernon’s vocoder obsession is becoming a crutch, it’s hard not to be blown away by the explosive experimentation on the Eau Claire musician’s third record. Squishy hip-hop-informed electronic beats, eccentric phrasing and arrangement gold provide the backbone for Vernon’s distinct yearning falsetto – a voice we’d been missing.
Every song is a winner on Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape, a God-fearing, gospel-infused work that propelled its maker to major-label-level stardom without label support. It’s easy to understand why: Coloring Book solidifies Chance as one of today’s most versatile and inventive rappers, able to shift between instrumentation styles, tones, flows and emotions without sacrificing momentum or humour. A joyous and transporting album.
The roll-out to this album was maddeningly complicated – it had been expected a full year earlier, and then followed the August 19 release of a mostly ambient visual album called Endless – but the wait and confusion were worth it. Ocean’s second album is dreamy, intricate, emotional, existential – all the things we want from the R&B singer.
The wildly prolific Detroit producer’s fifth album does it all, from hard-nosed acid and plaintive R&B to achingly beautiful house and agit-prop spoken word. It’s as if Omar-S is distilling the best aspects of Detroit’s genre-defining musical legacies into a single release, and he does it without sacrificing either rough edges or emotionality. The confident title is warranted.
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