We Gon’ See the Future First, Or, My Top 10 Albums of 2016

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Well, that was a weird year. From the thrillingly unthinkable (the drought-ending triumph of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Cavaliers) to the depressingly unthinkable (the entire election cycle), 2016 just wouldn’t stop heaping strange, incredibly unlikely events upon us.

And yet, almost everyone agrees this is the best year music has had in a long time. Throughout this weird and improbable year, we were lucky enough to get undeniably brilliant and essential music. Many of pop and hip-hop’s titans unveiled new albums (Kanye, Beyonce, Drake, Rihanna). Several up-and-comers burst through with enjoyable and challenging work (Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada). Enigmatic luminaries returned out of the blue (David Bowie, Radiohead, Frank Ocean).

Of course, 2016 will also be known as the year music lost some of its all-time visionaries. The deaths of Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and more hit the music world with a heavy, solemn thud. Although too young for their heyday, I traversed through the discographies of Bowie, Prince, and A Tribe Called Quest to remember my favorite songs and discover new ones.

So while we lost some greats, we gained a whole slew of seismic, statement-making, indispensable new albums that we will continue to unpack for years to come. Now to my favorites from the year.

Honorable Mention

Anti – Rihanna

We got it from Here… – A Tribe Called Quest

Sunlit Youth – Local Natives

10. Telefone – Noname

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For obvious reasons, introverts seem to be somewhat rare in the pop music sphere. Frank Ocean is one, Kendrick Lamar is probably another. But this year, Noname arrived on the scene in a likably reserved manner with Telefone. Connected to Chance the Rapper’s Chicago crew, her fresh, relaxed, and clear voice draws you in immediately.

The easygoing and breezy production is paired with often devastating content. Amid catchy melodies, Noname paints a melancholy picture of the violence and anxiety of her hometown.  Death may hang over the album (literally on the cover), but Telefone still presents a life-affirming message from an intoxicating new voice.

9. Cardinal – Pinegrove

This is one that I discovered late in the year, but quickly became the album I didn’t know I was missing: an eloquent, unabashedly emotional, alt-country record. On Cardinal, New Jersey band Pinegrove don’t innovate musically as much as they offer youthful intelligence amidst enjoyable rock tunes.

The writing on Cardinal is endlessly engaging and clever. The very first song, “Old Friends,” features the words “labyrinthine” and “solipsistic” — words you don’t stumble upon too often outside academia. However, it’s not just the unconventional use of big words, but how Pinegrove can turn a phrase to articulate the difficulty of expressing oneself (“Apparently my ventricles are full of doubt“).

What’s most amazing about Cardinal is that it is both earnest and laid-back; it’s utterly sincere, but with a sense of perspective. They gloomily ask, “How come every outcome’s such a comedown?” only to turn around and say, “There’s nothing really bad to be upset about“.

8. 99.9% – Kaytranada

Similar to Jamie xx’s In Colour from last year, Montreal producer Kaytranada created a fascinating melting pot of hip-hop, R&B, house, and electronic vibes on 99.9%. Just like its cover, the record features a colorful array of sounds, both bright and dark. Most importantly, it’s never dull and fantastic for studying, writing, and working.

Glowed Up” is probably the standout track, as 2016 breakout star Anderson .Paak flexes over an eerie, atmospheric beat. Each song seems to bring something fresh to the album, though, such as highlights “Got It Good” and “Lite Spots”. In such a competitive year for music, it’s a testament to Kaytranada’s talent that 99.9% was able to make it on so many year-end lists.

7. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson

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About three minutes into Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a brave new sonic direction is announced when a burst of horns arrives on the scene. Known previously for his throwback country crooning and trippy, metaphysical musings, Simpson expands and diversifies his sound on his new record.

But he also has a new direction in content as well. With the birth of his first child, Simpson has clearly been given a fresh perspective. On “Keep It Between The Lines,” he commands his son to “Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done“. On “Brace For Impact,” he advises to “Go out and live a little” and to “Make sure you give a little“. Simpson has always been capable of doling out profound nuggets, but his practical wisdom for his son on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is the most relatable he’s been.

As a concept album, it all comes together beautifully in a tight nine tracks. There’s a wonderful Nirvana cover, a heartfelt dispatch to his wife, and a “call to arms” against U.S. military propaganda. Simpson’s brave new direction finds him insightful, forthright, and generous.

6. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West

Kanye’s 2016 had its share of highlights and lowlights, to say the least. His wife was robbed at gunpoint, he abruptly ended his tour, and checked himself into the hospital for “temporary psychosis.” He also created The Life of Pablo.

For his seventh solo record, Kanye gave us a glimpse of his messy, visionary album-making process through Twitter and then innovated yet again by continuing to tweak the material post-release. Despite its unfocused nature, The Life of Pablo is a fascinating piece of art that fuses gospel, rap, and R&B together for a wholly unique batch of songs. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1” and “Famous” have brilliant, heavily-sampled production that is undercut somewhat by facepalm-worthy Kanye lyrics. Still, the album’s best moments are stunning and vivid, particularly “Ultralight Beam,” which actually has a minimal amount of Kanye but literally sounds like heaven.

Kanye’s strength as an artist has always been about letting us see his vulnerabilities and weaknesses with bracing honesty. The Life of Pablo is in no way Kanye’s best work — it’s overlong and overstuffed — but the musical genius is still there, amid all the messiness. So, in a way, it may be the most Kanye album he’s ever made.

5. Blonde – Frank Ocean

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This is one that will probably take longer to marinate than any other album this year. Like an opaque, impressionistic film, Blonde is a work that demands time and reflection. It feels like there is something transcendent going on, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Following the revelatory triumph of 2012’s Channel Orange, Ocean returned with something else entirely. Instead of dense drums, Blonde has almost no percussion. Instead of a fresh twist on R&B, Blonde really has no classifiable genre. Instead of outward storytelling, Blonde tells foggy, personal vignettes. Channel Orange felt immediate and endlessly listenable; whereas Blonde is intimate and airy, but eventually reveals more emotional depth.

It may not be my very favorite from the year, but the future may smile even more fondly on it. If it does, we shouldn’t be surprised. Frank himself told us in the opening track that, “We gon’ see the future first“.

4. Lemonade – Beyonce

How do you top that time you revolutionized the music industry with an overnight surprise release visual album? I guess you come back with another visual album, this time playing with your celebrity in a fascinating way to create a brilliant and deeply personal work. There’s a reason Beyonce is universally beloved; she makes all that look flawless.

Lemonade took us on a journey through disbelief, rage, conviction, and forgiveness. It spans genres, from rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) to country (“Daddy Lessons”) to trap (“Formation”) and more, but it all unifies into a cohesive, compelling whole due to Beyonce’s gravity. While the middle section loses momentum a bit, Lemonade culminates with a bravura three-song finish. Beginning with “Freedom” (Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar’s black empowerment anthem that makes you feel like you could run through a brick wall) leading into “All Night” (a moving tribute to hard-fought love), and ending with “Formation” (one of the defining songs of a fraught 2016).

3. Malibu – Anderson .Paak

Anderson .Paak And Free Nationals Band Live Performance Presented By The Virtual Reality Company

Anderson .Paak dropped his fresh and self-assured sophomore album in January and I’ve been rocking it all the way through the year. Even after countless listens, Malibu feels as personal and pleasurable as ever. “The Bird” and “The Dreamer” bookend the album, acting as intimate insights into Anderson’s life, but there’s also plenty of good times here as well. Like Chance the Rapper, he can fluently and enjoyably alternate between singing and rapping. “Come Down” and “Am I Wrong” glide along effortlessly, mixing R&B, funk, and hip-hop together for an addictive concoction.

I had the good fortune of seeing Anderson at a music festival in September. His swagger is so vibrant and infectious that it’s no surprise his star is rising fast. NxWorries, his side project, also released a record this year called Yes Lawd!, which, in addition to all his guest verses for other artists, only increased Anderson’s ubiquity in 2016.

2. 22, A Million – Bon Iver

I’ve written enough about Justin Vernon and Bon Iver’s outstanding third album 22, A Million already, but I just wanted to add that in a year when pop’s top artists (Beyonce, Kanye, Frank Ocean) were pushing themselves to be better, Justin Vernon was right there with them, forging a remarkably original path.

1. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

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Beginning with his curtain-parting entrance on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” 2016 was the year of Chance the Rapper. Then with Coloring Book, the young Chicagoan proved himself to be the heir to pre-808s and Heartbreak Kanye. His outstanding mixtape is so chock-full of radiant joy, gratitude, and wonder that it was impossible to deny Chance’s talent and cultural reach.

One of the great summer albums in recent memory, I continued to spin Coloring Book through the rest of the year. Whether you’re religious or not, Chance’s buoyant portrayal of faith is irresistibly uplifting. He makes a relationship with God the most attractive thing in the world: “When the praises go up, the blessings come down.” He reminds himself that even amidst life’s trials, “I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded.” He offers timely and Biblical advice in an election year: “Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom.

And yet, all the optimism and joyousness resonates because of the pain underneath (something he also did well on his previous effort, Acid Rap), which is the secret to Coloring Book‘s brilliance. Chance hails from Chicago, so songs like “Summer Friends,” where he mourns the city’s summer spike in murders, lets us in on Chance’s suffering a little bit. In fact, despite all the victorious trumpets, the quieter moments on this record are just as powerful.

The cover shows Chance’s face as he gazes down at his newborn daughter with a gorgeous pink and red sky in the background. In such a weird year, Chance taught us to be grateful for our blessings and gave us joyful music to return to, even in the not-so-blessed moments.

Top 10 Songs

10) “Cranes in the Sky” – Solange

9) “Feel No Ways” – Drake

8) “untitled 05” – Kendrick Lamar

7) “Summer Friends” – Chance the Rapper

6) “Solo” – Frank Ocean

5) “All Night” – Beyonce

4) “33 ‘GOD'” – Bon Iver

3) “No Problem” – Chance the Rapper

2) “Freedom” – Beyonce feat. Kendrick Lamar

1) “Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West

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Denis Villeneuve, Master of Dread

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In Arrival, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi mind-warper, you don’t see the alien spacecraft at first, not even after it has landed on our planet. Villeneuve makes you wait, for an unsettling amount of time, until our main character, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is there in person. Only then is the spacecraft revealed to us in an image that conjures up equal parts dread and beauty.

Villeneuve usually drenches his films in pure dread from start to finish. You’d think this would make his work overly dour or unwatchable, but he somehow avoids that trap. How does he so successfully present his signature mood on screen? And how does he find the beauty despite it all? Let’s pull some examples from his four most recent pictures, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and Arrival.

Visuals

Since he doesn’t have a writing credit on any of his last four movies, the cinematography and shot composition is where you will find Villeneuve leaving his imprint the most. On each movie, every corner of the screen has been filled with evocative images of dread.

Of course, it presents itself a little differently for each film. In Prisoners, the child abduction thriller, it’s a suburban dread, one where a neighborhood of comfort and affluence is morphed into terror and torment. Interiors of suburban homes are depicted in mostly grays and blues; the weather is either cold, rainy, or both. The entire movie, although a bit too long, is infused with such a disturbing and uneasy mood that it’s impossible to relax.

For his drug war indictment Sicario, Villeneuve utilizes the harsh, dehydrated U.S.-Mexican border landscapes to convey dread of a savage world. We follow Emily Blunt’s out-of-place FBI agent into “a land of wolves.” One bravura shot of the agents preparing for a raid on a drug-smuggling tunnel into the United States is a perfect example of this dread. Against a dusk backdrop, the black shapes of the soldiers walk down toward the tunnel, almost as if they are descending into hell itself. Simultaneously, the droning, bass-heavy score perfectly soundtracks this bleak journey.

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Arrival has us dreading the threat of the unknown through the gorgeous, yet unsettling shots of the exterior and interior of the alien spacecraft. Once inside this strange, coal-black oval, we again feel a mixture of awe and trepidation, due to absence of gravity and the minimalist aesthetic. We’re not sure if these beings come in peace or malevolence, but wow, is their spaceship breathtaking.

Performances

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Jake Gyllenhaal is the only actor to star in more than one Villeneuve movie, which is perfect, because he’s best as a restless and anxious performer, going all the way back to Donnie Darko. In their psychosexual thriller, Enemy, Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal team up to create a masterfully tense and ambiguous ride. Gyllenhaal plays a professor who sees his doppelganger in a movie and won’t stop until he’s figured out what’s going on. As the detective investigating the missing children in Prisoners, he brings that character’s stress to screen through various tics and mannerisms. Both are performances of undeniable psychological complexity that display Gyllenhaal’s prodigious talent — and Villeneuve’s ability to bring it out of him.

Other big name actors also fare well in his films. Blunt and Benicio del Toro stand out in Sicario, the former just trying to keep her head above water in a chaotic and merciless drug world, while the latter unflinchingly and single-mindedly navigates the same landscape. When he says to her, “You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now,” you feel every bit of the danger and dread the scene lays out.

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Perhaps the best performance in any Villeneuve film is Adams in Arrival. Most of the movie relies on her to singlehandedly emote what each specific scene requires. Put bluntly, this is her movie. She conveys intelligence, wonder, and pain with nimble grace throughout. She’s been nominated for five Oscars already, and I’m not sure she’s ever been better than she is here. Something about the uncertain world Villeneuve builds around her allows her to thrive as a poised and steady presence.

Pacing

One of the things Villeneuve does better than most of his peers is pacing. His films move at a patient and measured clip; you always feel as if you are in good hands when you watch his work. You could do everything else right — acting, score, writing, visuals — but if your pacing is off, your film won’t have the desired effect.

Villeneuve is a master at gradually ramping up tension. His camera moves slowly and deliberately as he sets up his dread-filled sequences. You never feel like things are moving too fast, and you never feel like they’re moving too slow, because you’re hooked on what’s going to happen next. The border ambush scene from Sicario makes for an apt example.

There’s hardly a more precarious setting for a shootout than bumper-to-bumper traffic. Villeneuve uses this to his advantage by creating unbearable tension as the cars inch forward. He shows us the target vehicles and then takes us inside one of them, slowly panning around so we can see the guns. As the agents advance on them, your pulse quickens. After several harrowing seconds of a standoff, violence explodes from the screen in a flash of red and shattered windows.  At this point the action has subsided, but as Blunt’s character surveys the scene, you catch an approaching figure in the car’s side mirror. Just like that, we are thrust back into danger.

The actual violence in that scene was mere seconds long, but everything around it was so masterfully handled that the burst of action had maximum impact.

———–

In his piece on Villeneuve in The Ringer, Chris Ryan astutely outlines the lineage and method of directors like Villeneuve.

He is a worthy inheritor of a complicated legacy: part of a tradition that includes Ridley Scott (Villeneuve is making a sequel to Scott’s seminal Blade Runner) and David Fincher (and Stanley Kubrick, and the Coen brothers, and Cary Fukunaga, and Michael Bay) — directors who often take the mundane or grotesque parts of life, and create deeply pleasurable aesthetic experiences out of them. The more mundane or grotesque the better. They view it as a challenge: serial killers, child kidnappings, military engagements, panic rooms, border wars, psycho-sexual waking nightmares, Transformers, Facebook, Chinese restaurants, college dorm rooms, daylit Texas bars — it’s all a canvas. They are interested in the painting.

Villeneuve has proven to be a master at this. He makes dark, moody, often bleak movies that are also impossibly handsome. This makes his work pleasant in a sense, despite their setting and subject matter.

However, in Arrival we see him doing something a little different. Dread still very much fills the screen, but this time he lets some light in. Villeneuve himself said he wanted “a vacation from darkness,” and you can see this in the optimistic and life-affirming nature of Arrival. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that we’re used to alien invasion movies being highly apocalyptic. Arrival flips that on its head.

This newfound ray of light makes for an exciting next step in Villeneuve’s evolution as a filmmaker, especially with the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 on the way in 2017. He may be the Master of Dread, but he’s still refining his craft in a fascinating way.