Top Albums of 2016

words/ KEEGAN HUGHES + KENYON HOLNESS + ARMAN SADRZADEH + ADRIAN YONG

*This article was written collaboratively by four young boys from Ajax-Pickering*

Other publications tend to put out their year-end lists before the numbers tick over.  Not us over here at the DTS.  That would be entirely too predictable.  We’ll release our list WEEKS into the new year.  Keep everyone on their toes, you know?  Plus, people have more time to listen to the best music of the past year now that they don’t have to spend all of their waking hours talking to their family and explaining what party they plan on attending to celebrate 2016 ending.

Plenty of good music this year, and a lot of it took us by surprise.  It’s hard to defy expectations when you don’t have any, but a lot of artists did just that.  However, some artists did exactly what was expected of them: put out really good albums.  Now I’m sure many other more experienced writers have composed extensive works about plenty of the most hyped releases of the past 12 months.  But consider this: we also want to write about our favourite music!!!

Unlike those compiled by respected publications, our list will be in no particular order.  Each writer has opinions differing from the next, and we all have our own unique top 10’s.  So just appreciate that each album has something wonderful to offer, and place your trust in our immaculate taste.  I promise you won’t be disappointed (I can’t actually promise this).

If we describe something that piques your interest, give it a listen and let us know what you think.

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

While living at home this summer, I would drive my parents’ minivan to work every day.  For whatever reason, it is still equipped with satellite radio.  Instead of plugging in my phone every day via aux cord, I decided to take the opportunity to listen to some new music on the hundreds of channels available.  My favourite was channel 35, which played a whole lot of indie rock and similar tunes.  One song in particular caught my attention, so much so that I started a playlist based off of it.  If it came on I would crank up the volume, and if it was still playing when I reached my destination I would sit in the car until it was over.

This song was “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest.  It opens with Will Toledo singing falsetto, unaccompanied by any instruments.  An angelic synth fades in behind his voice before the rest of the band kicks in, and the song comes to life.  Before the end of the 6 minute song, it has changed how it sounds more than three times.  And that is the beauty of Teens of Denial.  Each song is written creatively while avoiding classic songwriting tropes, and still manages to be catchy and evocative.  

The hook in each song comes out loud and clear without being too repetitive or predictable.  Some songs, like “(Joe Gets Kicked out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” even have multiple hooks that could have been used to write multiple songs.  There isn’t a song on this album that I wouldn’t recommend to someone listening to the band for the very first time.  Even with the songs being catchy and accessible, there is a lot to listen for, and I’ve found myself noticing something new with every re-listen.  

Toledo’s lyrics shine throughout the 1 hour 10 minute play time.  They are equal parts self-assured and self-deprecating, with plenty of dark humour sprinkled throughout to help offset some of the heavier themes.  In one song he sings “hangovers feel good when I know it’s the last one, then I feel so good that I have another one,” while in another he shouts “high school teen dream dies in a hospital, leaves behind a journal and a pair of Air Jordans,” before transitioning into the refrain “I didn’t want you to hear that shake in my voice, my pain is my own.”  His own stories and troubles are very apparent, without becoming too whiny or self-involved.  

It may seem like a lengthy listen, but it is worthwhile to say the least.  Toledo’s talents as a songwriter and a performer are on full display, and there isn’t a discernable low moment in the entire album.  Give “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” a listen, and then listen to the whole thing front to back.  You’ll find yourself coming back to it, over and over.  -KHu

Anderson .Paak – Malibu

Early 2016, a friend of mine told me to check out this new kid on the block, Anderson .Paak, and told me he sounded a bit like Kendrick Lamar. At the time, I had recently bought the debut EP from UK-duo Snakehips titled All My Friends, and you may have heard the eponymous song featuring Chance the Rapper and Tinashe. To my surprise, .Paak was featured on the second track of that EP, and suddenly I realized I had been listening to this guy’s unique voice for about a month already (I was in love with that EP).

As I did more research on this newcomer, I found that he was featured on and/or produced numerous tracks for numerous artists (he produced an entire album for Watsky) over the past year, all the while working to crank out his own masterpiece, Malibu.

Malibu presents itself almost as a biography of .Paak’s life, but each song is painted with a different color AND a different paintbrush, so to speak. We open with a laid-back, bluesy guitar riff on “The Bird”, leading us into .Paak’s childhood (“My mama caught the gambling bug… My papa was behind them bars/ We never had to want for nuthin’/ Said all we ever need is love.”), and this story is explored more and more in other tracks as the album goes on. Quickly switching gears with a characteristic signature drum fill, “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” at first listen may sound like it belongs on Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly (thanks to the dissonant chords in its cacophonous hook), but it soon becomes its own groove as it dips right into mellow keys and a J Dilla drum beat as he begins to rap about his mysterious girl.

Continuing with the diversity of this album, the album resumes on its third track with “The Waters”, a modern hip-hop sound decorated with the heavenly cries of BJ The Chicago Kid; changes tempo to a soulful 50s sound on “Put Me Thru”; and then modernizes itself with a synth-infused club-pop hit, “Am I Wrong?” (easily the popular vote for favorite track). Switching back to hip hop on “Without You”, a dreamy, speedy “Parking Lot”, and then electronica on “Light Weight”, it jumps around quite a bit more, while .Paak still maintains the telling of his story through his textured voice.

He effortlessly weaves his rhymes with melody, singing bits here and there and rapping others. Not only that, but his flow rarely follows every bar, instead opting to take his time to tell his story and rarely rhyming on the end beat, using internal rhymes instead. This, coupled with his smoky yet smooth timbre, easily merits his own stage, his own persona, and his own brand, hardly needing to compare to greats like Kendrick Lamar.  -AS

Frank Ocean –  Blonde

I remember the moment when I found out Frank Ocean’s website updated with what seemed like a black and white livestream of the man himself, woodworking, with some background music. I scrambled to the computer, to see if it was true. After four years essentially of silence, and countless jokes about his disappearance, Frank Ocean gave us a mysterious hint that something was coming. Did this mean we were finally getting a new album? Or was it something else entirely? The internet was quick to react, working to decipher what this all meant. I remember myself joining in on these internet threads, trying to find out as much as I could. The first time I listened to Channel Orange, Ocean’s debut studio album, front to back, I was blown away, wanting more. Four years, one month, and ten days later, Frank Ocean released the visual album Endless. If that wasn’t enough for all those excited as I was to hear his voice, a day later, he released Blonde.

As a follow up to Channel Orange, Blonde demonstrates the evolution of Ocean’s sound. Straying away from a typical R&B sound, Blonde creates a daydream like ambience. The comforting melodies carry Ocean’s strong voice, letting the listener drift into the ideas and feelings that Ocean shares through his lyrics. Blonde also shows how Frank Ocean isn’t afraid to take a few risks with his sound. In the opening track,”Nikes”, Ocean’s voice is modified to sound much higher than the voice we’re used to. Upon first listen, I was intrigued by this decision, and confused to the point where I was seriously questioning this decision, but like most things, it grew on me completely.

Another aspect of Frank Ocean’s mind that Blonde demonstrates is his perfectionist attitude. Every track seems to have an endless amount of layers in the production. It seems like I’m always discovering a new sound somewhere with each listen. I only recently heard the sound of birds chirping in the background of “Skyline To”, adding to the dreamlike sound. The range of different types of sounds each track has is astounding. “Pink + White”’s groovy bassline, accompanied by background vocals by none other than Beyonce herself, ranges greatly from the gospel choir and organ of “Godspeed” (As I’m writing this, I just noticed the sounds of birds chirping on Pink + White).

Continuing on with the album, the sound continues to change. Andre 3000 delivers one of my personal favourite guests verses of the year on “Solo (Reprise)”. This, aggressive, yet still somewhat ambient, track, is followed by the chaotic beginning of “Pretty Sweet”, which then mellows out into a series of children’s vocals mixed with a fast paced drum beat and rhythm guitar. Ocean manages to introduce this dramatic change in sound without straying away from the core sound of Blonde. I could spend days talking about the moments in Blonde, dissecting bit by bit, but I believe the music should speak to the listener and let them appreciate, not a guy who really likes Frank Ocean.

With all the hype that lead up to the release of Blonde, Frank Ocean managed to, in my opinion, not only meet these expectations, but exceeded them. If there’s one main takeaway from this album, it must be that excellence takes time. Frank Ocean took four years away to create both Endless and Blonde, following up to an incredibly high standard set by Channel Orange. If Frank Ocean needs another four years to release his follow-up to Blonde, then I will gladly wait.  -AY

KAYTRANADA – 99.9%

I first heard KAYTRANADA when he was collaborating with Toronto jazz outfit BADBADNOTGOOD on beats for Kali Uchis’ album Por Vida.  He has the power to infuse infectious energy into drum grooves that never seem to get old.  Needless to say, I’ve been hooked ever since.

99.9% is the Montreal-native’s first full-length album, following plenty of mixes and collabs posted to SoundCloud and the like.  KAYTRANADA is a DJ first and foremost, with production as his musical weapon of choice.  Instead of taking the lyrical reigns of his own album, he calls upon some of the brightest up-and-coming voices in hip-hop to showcase their voices.  The result of these two elements coming together is nothing short of incredible.

Notable features include Syd, of The Internet fame, on the track “YOU’RE THE ONE.”  Anderson .Paak, who also has a phenomenal album out this year, delivers an infectious and confident performance on “GLOWED UP,”  and Vic Mensa steals the show with his performance on “DRIVE ME CRAZY.”  If it sounds like I’m fangirling, it’s because I am.  It’s that good.

Fair warning: this album will make you dance.  No exceptions.  Put it on and you will move, regardless of your attitude towards dancing.  Clocking in at 59 minutes, it should count as an hour-long workout just by listening.  There are literally zero songs on the tracklist that you couldn’t get down to.  Highlights include the delightfully round bass in the sensual “GOT IT GOOD,” and the electric piano groove in “DESPITE THE WEATHER.”

So get on your dancing shoes.  And if you haven’t heard of any of the features before this moment, get to know them.  You’ll be happy you did.  -KHu

Kevin Abstract – American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story

Despite its 2016 release, there’s a great feeling of nostalgia that comes to me when I listen to Kevin Abstract’s second studio album American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story. To paraphrase a tweet I saw a few days ago, Kevin Abstract manages to perfectly capture the romanticism of being a teenager, born and raised in the suburbs. If you haven’t figured out, I too, was born and raised in the suburbs. In particular, Ajax (shoutouts to Pickering High School), a town about an hour drive away from the bustling city of Toronto. Now, I’m  20, the same age as Kevin, and living in the aforementioned city. With every listen of American Boyfriend, it brings me back a few years, when my biggest worry was who I was going to take to prom.

When I first read the title A Suburban Love Story, I imagined the main topic of the lyrics to be about a person; a high school crush, a boyfriend/girlfriend, a childhood friend turned lover. This is the case for much of the lyricism, but the sounds he conveys along with this create much more. The use of relaxed guitar riffs remind me on “Seventeen” of late nights driving around with my friends, windows down, blasting music just because. The vocal harmonies in “Yellow” remind me of the butterflies I felt the first time I asked a girl out. The synth opening on “Suburbian Born” reminds me of the long walks home from my then-girlfriend’s house. All of “June 29th” brings me back to the day I broke up with her. Not all of these experiences were pleasant per say, but they all are a defining part of who I am today.

In the opening track, “Empty,” he speaks on a lot of feelings most teenagers will experience in their high school years such as personal identity, parental conflict, and falling in love. He also speaks on something I personally can’t relate to, but I know many people can: being gay in a homophobic environment. Later in the album, he also shares his experiences with racism. The latter two themes play a large role throughout the album, as they are two very defining characteristics of what Kevin Abstract represents, a queer, black man, doing what he loves.

The entirety of “Miserable America” tackles these two topics head on. The second verse starts off with “My boyfriend hates me/ Won’t let me meet his parents/ Says my skin might scare ‘em/ He not afraid of my appearance”. The song ends off with the hook, “Miserable America/ Assassinate my character”, repeating itself until the end of the track. I myself, am not gay, or black (I am a visible minority though, Malaysian, but often mistaken for Filipino or Chinese), but despite these differences, I can still relate to the last line. Throughout high school, I feel like many teenagers have trouble really being who they want to be with all the pressure from peers and society. In Kevin’s case, it’s on the more extreme ends of irrational hate, compared to what most others experience.

I might still be young, and older people may laugh at me when I talk about nostalgia, but although I graduated high school about four years ago, it’s still a time that I look back upon, and think of how it affected me. When I listen to American Boyfriend, I really understand what a suburban love story means. It’s not just about loving a person, it’s about loving the experiences growing up, the ups and the downs, thick and thin. From the nights spent in the Mcdonald’s parking lot with my friends, to the days where I was scared to come home because my grades weren’t good enough for my parents, there’s a little bit of something for all of us who grew up in the suburbs in American Boyfriend. Kevin Abstracts manages to bring us into his world, and shows that, “hey, you’re not alone with these feelings. It’ll all work out and you’ll find yourself”. High school wasn’t the best experience for me, but American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story reminds of who its made me today.  -AY

 

Jeff Rosenstock – Worry

Jeff Rosenstock writes incredibly poignant and relatable music.  Jeff Rosenstock puts out quite a large amount of music.  Jeff Rosenstock’s music can be joyous, melancholic, sorrowful, and hopeful.  Jeff Rosenstock’s music can be all four of those adjectives at the same time.  Jeff Rosenstock creates fantastic albums, and did so in the year 2016.

Worry by Jeff Rosenstock is an album that embodies a lot of modern though.  He funnels the abstract fear that many feel about the future into eloquent and punchy songs.  Some tell stories about friends and relationships, while others discuss politics of power.  

Rosenstock shines as a songwriter and arranger throughout this album, opening up with a plethora of single-length songs, before transitioning into a fast-paced collection of quick one-to-two minutes songs that lead into each other to push listeners forward to the finale.  He works piano, synthesizer, and even bells in with his signature guitar sound to create some interesting and catchy layered sounds.  The horns that kick in on “Pash Rash” infuse some ska-like energy, and buzzy synthesizers play under Rosenstock’s recounting of making out with a girl he likes in the van on “I Did Something Weird Last Night.”

Listen to “Festival Song” if you need a boost in energy, and “Pash Rash” if you’re even a little bit wistful.  And while you’re at it go listen to the rest of Rosenstock’s discography, along with the works of his other projects like Bomb the Music Industry!  He makes me love the world more, even if you’re a little scuzzy.  -KHu

Snakehips – All My Friends

Picture wrapping up exams in April, looking forward to making some money at your summer job, and spending some of that money on Friday nights downtown. Then fast forward to middle of summer, you find yourself on a lukewarm summer night downtown, an ice cream cone in your hand, with someone you just might have a crush on, and the two of you are overlooking a city skyline. Maybe you hit a Jays game earlier that day at the Rogers Center. Finally, you find yourself trying to wrap up your summer and you take a quick look back on how it was spent. What emotions do you feel?

This just might be the only EP to make this list. After I purchased this EP in April, it almost mirrored the path that my summer took in 2016. Beginning with “All My Friends” (feat. Tinashe and Chance the Rapper), a vibrant hip-hop anthem riddled with electronic flourishes and a preaching organ chord progression, there were a lot of nights where “all my friends [were] wasted”, not remembering the night before, and maybe asking some questions about what we’re currently doing with our lives. However, like the booze you drink to make you feel better, the song’s soulful melody, bumpy beat, and anthem sound quickly pick you back up and remind you that, like a song, this part of your life will be over soon, and you’ll grow up and probably won’t ever get this hammered again (eventually).

Blowing all my money was a surefire side effect of partying almost every weekend. “Money On Me” (featuring Anderson .Paak) drops into a more moody tone, but keeps its cheery tempo and energetic kick drums; sort of like the point at the beginning of the summer, where you know you’re spending quite a lot of money, but you never quite realize how much until the end of the September 1.

Returning to bright, lively, electronic hip-hop, “Falling” (feat. Malika) sits right at the peak of summer, when temperatures are usually the hottest they ever get, you start catching feelings for your coworker, neighbour, or hey, maybe even the cutie in your summer school class (“I’ll break down the walls / ‘Cause to you I’m drawn / Do you hear me? / I’m gonna fall for you”)

As the summer closes, you get ready to return to colder weather, less sunlight, or maybe even start to work a little harder, the mood just tends to sink altogether. There’s no major key here; it’s all minor keys and  in “Dimelo” (Feat. Tory Lanez). With that, the EP is over, and unless your music player is on repeat (heads up: your life never gets a repeat button), you gotta move on to the next thing to listen to (or part of your life), whatever that may be.

For me, this was an EP that maybe didn’t have too much lyrical value, but in overall sound, production, and emotion, really delivered and stuck to my heart. I bought this EP because I had been supporting Snakehips on Soundcloud for the past year, and was ecstatic to see the features this 4-track collection. Hopefully we don’t need to wait too long for the next great sound to sprout from this duo.  -AS

Charlotte Day Wilson – CDW

Charlotte Day Wilson easily boasts one of the most unique voices to come out of a movement of young female artists (and out of Toronto, no less). It’s got such a soulful, smoky, hearty, resonant tone that isn’t usually seen with most female electronic artists. We are usually more inclined to expect voices like those of Syd, AlunaGeorge, and the like.

Opening with an ethereal sequence layered with tonal synthesizers, ascending embellishments, trumpets, and Wilson’s soaring voice, we can perfectly imagine “On Your Own” as an opening to anything: a film, a concert, even your morning commute.

“After All” gets a little more groovy with a marching kick and a catchy e-piano riff, but manages to maintain her laid-back mood. Might just be favourite track here for its pulsing but still easy-going tempo, trumpets and sax notes, airy chords that perfectly sit in the background and act as the walls containing you inside this listening experience. Lyrically, this track comes across as her being at the time where, after working so hard at what she wants, she needs a rest, and how it’s important to take breaks and pit-stops in life to remind you of where exactly you are, how far you’ve travelled, and how much you still have to go.

Serenading sax choirs will ease us right into “Where Do You Go”, where we hear Wilson questioning the presence and trust of what she loves (it is also unclear whether she is singing about a person or an abstract concept like her time or her love of music). The bass comes back to give us a steady RnB rhythm coupled with the kick drum, resulting in an easy-going, yet emotional track.

If you really want a showcasing of Wilson’s voice, turn to “Find You”. The slow steady rhythm again allows her voice to breakthrough and crown the entire song with it.

Along with other Toronto greats such as River Tiber and Daniel Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson is surely not one to be dismissed easily.  -AS

Brockhampton – All American Trash

There should be no need to introduce Brockhampton, as the opening track of this mixtape “ENCINO” does the job. For those who haven’t listened to it yet, to quote: “these boys is coming straight out of southeast Texas, hotter than chicken grease”. All American Trash is the debut mixtape by the self-described, “All American boy-band”, Brockhampton. Now, when you read boy-band, you probably are thinking of something along the lines of the Backstreet Boys, One Direction, or 5 Seconds of Summer. Brockhampton, while influenced by these traditional boy-bands, are trying to redefine what it means to be a boy-band. I’ve read other publications compare them more to a group/collective such as Odd Future, rather than N’Sync. Semantics aside (I’m on team boy-band), the members of Brockhampton cover all bases, from singing, rapping, producing, and visuals, truly showcasing all their talent.

Brockhampton is composed of a great number of members that is impossible to find a definitive number. On All American Trash, these include: Ian “Kevin Abstract” Simpson, Russell “JOBA” Boring, Matt Champion, Ameer Vann, William “Meryln” Wood, Dominique “Dom Mclennon” Simpson, Michael “Rodney Tenor” Kirby-Mcgann, Albert Gordon, Ciarran “BearFace” Mcdonald, Henock Sileshi, Romil Hemnani, Jeff “BLACK MONDAY” Kleinman and Jabari Manwarring. While most of them are from Texas, some hail from other parts of the states, and Bearface and Jabari are from overseas, Ireland and Grenada respectively (I probably missed a few names, to which I apologize, there’s just so many of you).

One of the greatest strengths of All American Trash to me is the sheer talent all these guys have, and how diverse they are able to show it. The intro skit, “ENCINO” has an amazing track behind it. Following up, you have the banger “BEN CARSON” showing off the rapping and lyricism of Ameer and Merlyn, and the production of Romil. The next song, “MICHIGAN” is a sudden change in tone, yet still transitions smoothly from “BEN CARSON”. “MICHIGAN” is a smooth track that shows off both Kevin’s rapping abilities and vocal chops. I can’t stress enough how diverse the talent pool of Brockhampton is. “INFATUATION” shows Rodney’s rapping quick flow, Meryln’s silky smooth, Morgan Freeman like voice, and JOBA’s heavenly singing voice (this man should star in an opera with a voice like his). Later on the track “CONACTS,” Rodney switches it up, and shows why they nicknamed him Smoothback through a smooth, acoustic, love song. What shines in “PALACE” is Albert Gordon’s guitar melody, and JOBA’s diversity with his bassline, all accompanying, once again, beautiful vocals by JOBA, Matt Champion, and Bearface. The production on “HOME” is one of my personal favorite pieces of production from 2016. “FLIP MO” and “COTTON HOLLOW” showcase the synergy between Merlyn and Dom, not to mention Dom’s singing voice on top of his rapping ability. The point I’m trying to make is that, these guys are ridiculously talented, and that’s an understatement.
If you’re looking for something fresh to listen to, by an incredibly talented group of young men, or want to have the term boy-band redefined, All American Trash. Is the perfect mixtape. If these guys can put together something like this for their debut release, then imagine what they’re going to be capable down the road. These guys are not to be slept on. -AY

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

Hip-hop legends Q-Tip, Phife Dawg (RIP), and Ali Shaheed Muhammed return as ‘A Tribe Called Quest’ to drop a love letter to the old school hip-hop scene with their album ‘We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’. With features such as Busta Rhymes, Kanye West, Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, and many more, it comes as no surprise that this album became an instant classic. I was gonna continue with a bunch of facts about them but that’d be lame. This album is amazing, the production is crazy, RIP Phife Dawg, personal favorite songs are; Mobius (THE FLOWWW), Melatonin, Ego, We The People, Dis Generation, and pretty much the whole album. Give this a spin, you won’t regret it.  -KHo

LISTEN TO THESE TOO, WE CAN’T WRITE ABOUT EVERYTHING:

Noname – Telefone

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

Childish Gambino – Awaken My Love!

Toro Y Moi – Live From Trona

Shawn Mendes –  Illuminate (I am not kidding) 

Beyonce – Lemonade

Bruno Mars – 24K Magic

Injury Reserve – Floss

Solange – A Seat at the Table

NxWorries – Yes Lawd!

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

PUP – The Dream is Over

BADBADNOTGOOD – IV

Touché Amoré – Stage Four

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

The Weeknd – Starboy

 

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