Music 2016: Comebacks, rookies and red-cards
Our album of the year, “We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service” was the ultimate comeback record, released by A Tribe Called Quest 18 years after their previous LP, “The Love Movement,” hit the shelves. 2016 saw an unusual amount of dormant artists rise from the ashes to release new albums. Here are a few of our favorites.
The Avalanches by Christian Bunker
The Avalanches could have waited a week, a year, a decade or a century before releasing their second album — it wouldn’t have mattered. The group’s two LP’s would still have sounded completely different, yet possessed the signature Avalanches touch: They still would have contained a diverse collection of influences that set it apart from any particular genre or time period. Like nature itself, “Wildflower” is an album that can sit sublimely in the background or grab your attention depending on your mood. A prime example of the latter is the excellent lead single “Frankie Sinatra.” This track effortlessly mixes masterful funk, jazz and classical music underneath masterful performances by two of today’s best rappers, making it one of the year’s best singles (although it cannot top “Frontier Psychiatrist” as the band’s best song). Other tunes, like “If I Was a Folkstar,” “Colours” and “Wildflower” are smooth, soft background tunes that please the ear and are more reminiscent of the Avalanches’ earlier work. Less pleasing was the highly literal “Noisy Eater,” which used a daring set of samples but nevertheless made for a painful listen. However, hits and misses are to be expected from the highly eclectic nature of the group’s compositions. “Wildflower” remains an impressive release that proves the Avalanches can still be as fun, as innovative and as weird as they were in 2000 and leaves fans anxiously awaiting more music.
American Football by Mike Donovan
American Football must have a crippling fear of market saturation. When they released their first EP in 1999, they filled a clever niche in the music industry. The weaving guitars lines and expositional lyrics rode on the coattails of 90s indie giants Guided by Voices and Built to Spill while the tight production and melodic intricacy added a new element of professionalism to the genre’s sound. Alongside Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc, American Football helped carve a new path for American guitar music.
The early 2000s saw an influx of emo bands in the vein of American Football. Some of these bands — Conor Oberst’s Desaparecidos for instance — actually produced interesting material. Unfortunately, most the newcomers were chart hunters, prone to formulaic boredom. American Football waited silently in the background, watching their rise and burn.
By the time 2016 rolled around, the emo craze was a distant memory. A surplus of hastily made EDM tracks and cookie cutter Pop/R&B stifled the 2016 market, opening a spot for something different — possibly even nostalgic. American Football sought to fill this spot with their second eponymous LP.
The record is good yet lacking in ambition. If you’re looking for the sound of emo at its birth, you’ll get it on this sophomore album. Lyrically, the album is darker and more introspective than their debut. After all, one certainly hopes to see a reasonable dose of self-reflection when middle aged men decide to make teen angst music. Some criticize the album’s lack of inventiveness, but one can’t expect every band to give us Bowie-esque innovation on a comeback record. Sometimes, a simple reminder of past musical triumphs is enough. “American Football (LP2)” serves this purpose well.
Gucci Mane by Adam Ramos
While a measly three years between albums may not seem sufficient to warrant a spot on our comeback list, considering both American Football and The Avalanches waited over a decade and half, we’d be remiss not to mention Gucci Mane. After a parole violation landed the Atlanta icon a three-year jail sentence, temporarily stopping his seemingly endless stream of trap bangerz, in 2016 Gucci Mane emerged better, sober and ready to spit.
Recorded in just six days, “Everybody Looking” finds Gucci returning to what Gucci does best, slurring his hypnotic flow over a series of eclectic head-banging beats. Understandably underdeveloped, “Everybody Looking” is not perfect; in fact, it’s not even Gucci’s best 2016 release (see “WOPTOBER,”) but it does recall everything we missed as Gucci toiled away in a jail cell for those three cold years. Welcome back bud.
XXL Freshman Anderson .Paak may be Scene’s true rookie of the year; the soul singer/songwriter/producer not only cracked our Best Albums of 2016 list with the delightful “Malibu” LP but also dropped a lovely record in collaboration with producer Knxwledge (“Nx Worries”) and made guest appearances on too many great albums to count. However, .Paak isn’t the only new artist to shake up the scene this year. Be sure to catch these wonderful artists before they’re cool so you can get the indie cred you deserve.
D.R.A.M. by Jack Riedy
Take two simple piano chords and add a kick drum and a sub-bass that never coincide, circling each other like two sheepish middle-schoolers at a dance. Add in the most polarizing and innovative Atlanta artist since Future, a red-haired rebel who references a school shooting within two bars. Mix a heartfelt verse about success borne from hard work with a chorus about smoking weed and flirting at a party. What sounds like a recipe for disaster became a sublime double-platinum hit in the capable hands of D.R.A.M.
The Virginia native was inescapable in the back half of 2016. “Broccoli” and other bangers from his debut boomed out of speakers as long as the weather was warm enough to leave the windows open. He was propelled to new heights by his feature on Chance The Rapper’s album, warbling a child-like affirmation that would have felt corny coming from anyone else. Like Chance, D.R.A.M. is driven by a relentless positivity that makes his music feel like a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dismal year. When he performed at Taste of Chicago, it felt like the entire city swayed together as he crooned “everyone is special.” D.R.A.M. certainly is, and we’re lucky to have him.
Big Thief by Erin McAuliffe
Big Thief’s 2016 debut album, “Masterpiece,” was fittingly titled.
Adrianne Lenker’s endearingly fragile vocals and illustrative lyrics garnered attention as a solo act; when they’re supported by a three-piece backing band they are impossible to ignore. Elevated by swirly riffs and emphasized by drums, Lenker leads her listeners on a highly personal journey. The album is also just 12 tracks long, with only two tracks clocking in over four-minutes long, a testament to its concise poignancy.
From the cover art depicting kids playing with pets and toys on a beige carpet, the album is uniquely ingrained in nostalgia and place. Title-track “Masterpiece” depicts a common first date: “Crossing your legs inside the diner / Raising your coffee to your lips, the steam.” The track “Lorraine” delicately depicts a love that is a bit more comfortable but still exciting: “Your new blue eyeliner caught my distraction / And like we were two lovers forming from fiction / Your mouth caught my ear with such perfect diction.”
Big Thief’s album will prove familiar but exciting to fans of Lenker’s solo work while fresh listeners will feel the rush of a first date that could lead to long-term commitment.
KAYTRANADA by Adam Ramos
Just listen to a KAYTRANADA remix from this year and you’ll immediately recognize whyLouis Kevin Celestin isn’t your average DJ bro. After gloriously rising from the SoundCloud remix sea of mediocre, Canada’s darling DJ released his 15-track debut “99.9%” this year, an album as inventive as it is banging. Celestin’s gift with percussion arrangements is utterly unmatched. Whether with guest drummers like on standout track “BUS RIDE” or with his own polyrhythmic drum loops, each of Kaytranda’s tracks feel alive and active. Celestin pulls sounds from just about everywhere, crafting an eclectic sound matched only in the album’s artwork, courtesy of Spanish artist Ricardo Cavalo.
Nine of 11 tracks have a feature, and Celestian’s Kanye-ian ability to get the very best from his collaborators is just another perk on the album. Despite having successful 2016 records, Anderson .Paak and Vic Mensa both deliver some of their best work this year on “99.9%.” Vocalists AlunaGeorge and SYD both shine on the album as well, providing delicate counters to Celestin’s often frenzied beats.
Lil Yachty by Jimmy Kemper
Bringing a flaming hot Cheetos aesthetic that the rap world desperately needed, Lil Yachty is the perfect response to the hyper-serious realities of 2016. After appearing as a model in Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion and album release show at Madison Square Garden in February, Yachty released his divisive mixtape “Lil Boat” in March, featuring the SoundCloud jams “Minnesota” and “One Night.” While some critics were concerned his style might be alienating and dull, Lil Yachty nevertheless managed to break into the mainstream later this year by collaborating on D.R.A.M.’s smash-hit “Broccoli.”
Lil Yachty has succeeded where other SoundCloud struggle rappers have failed: his persistent challenge to the rap industry, and to the collective culture at large, to not take itself so darn seriously. His rapping may not even be objectively good at times, but the universe he has created — one that features N64 samples, cotton candy references and a hazy drug-addled production — is so absurdly innovative that it almost feels OK to cut him some slack.
STREET SECTS by John Darr
Industrial, as a hybrid of electronic dance music and metal, is a bizarre genre in that it lends itself to both dancefloor-stomping fun and furious intensity. Even when classic acts like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails crafted industrial masterpieces that grappled with relentlessly dark topics, the danceable, high-energy rhythmic cores of their tracks prompted raving as much as raging. Street Sects successfully translate this duality of extreme darkness and entrancing rhythms into a contemporary form. Their debut LP, “End Position,” is anchored by throbbing kick drum rhythms and decked out to the brim with swirling, menacing sound effects that make the record as rewarding through headphones as through a club-ready subwoofer. “End Position” makes for a thrilling debut; hopefully it’s also an omen of even crazier Street Sects records to come.
Even in one of the strongest years for music in recent memory, there were bound to be a handful of disappointments. Here are a handful of artists that should have been benched this year.
Drake by Erin McAuliffe, Scene Editor
After singles “Hotline Bling” and “One Dance” were released to much hype, Drake fell off that high tower he sits upon in “Views.” Meandering songs like “Keep The Family Close” and “Redemption” come in at over five minutes long, resulting in boredom (the latter features over 20 seconds of wind-blowing before any instrumentals come in). The singles standout while the rest is filler on this 20-song album.
2013’s “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” was long form, experimental Drake at his best — “Views” sees him flounder. Was the record potentially in an attempt to gather more streaming credits via extensive song options? Possibly. But if this was Drake’s strategy, the fact that he released it exclusively on Apple Music back in April only hindered him. With a song titled “Hype,” Drake should have been aware of how that works in the music industry: Exclusivity can lead to irrelevance in today’s streaming society. (To counter that, building up hype by delaying world-wide release worked for artists like Kanye West and Frank Ocean, respectively numbers six and 15 on our Top 20, this year.)
The album, like Drake, was best used for the generation of memes and meaningless award nominations.
M83 by Mike Donovan, Scene Writer
It was a pleasant night on the riverfront. After two days of your standard music festival mayhem, the exhaustion was starting to catch up to me. Still, I pledged to stay for the final act. M83 — the night’s headliner — had been a part of my life for quite a while. When my sister started guiding me through deeper musical waters, she held up M83 as a gateway band. Since then, their music has soundtracked more late nights of studying, vertical feet of skiing and miles of lonely driving than I care to count. Sentiment made the chance to witness their expansive soundscapes too enticing to pass up.
The set opened just as I’d imagined. An mesmerizing light show obscured the band members as subtle sonic hues gave way to the infectious hooks of “Reunion.” As the song reached its coda, though, a dramatic transformation took place. The lights changed color schemes, leaving the band in full view. A synth line that I can only describe as glorified elevator music ushered in a barrage of “Do it’s” and “Try it’s” in quick succession. After a few measures the sound shifted back to the immersive M83 of their previous records, but it quickly returned to the strange retro revival tropes. It’s like they were pranking their audience. “Do it, try it”— the lead single on their 2016 album “Junk” — ushered in a record which systematically avoided everything I loved about M83. I shut my eyes and prayed for tonal hemlock to fade out.
Don’t give up on M83, but — I beg of you — do not listen to “Junk.” The album lives up to its namesake. Life is short, and there’s a lot of good music out there. Misguided pastiche pop, even from a good band, isn’t worth your time.
Desiigner by Jimmy Kemper, Scene Writer
Desiigner has had a roller coaster of a year. After blowing up when his underground hit “Panda” was sampled (read: copied) on Kanye West’s “Pt. 2” from “The Life of Pablo,” “Panda” became a mainstream success in its own right. Over time, however, it became apparent that the original track was just too long and derivative of Future; Kanye’s approach to the track improved it by slimming the song down to half of its length.
This problem of tired-out music persisted on Desiigner’s debut GOOD Music mixtape, “New English,” which felt overstuffed with every industry cliche since the start of the decade and lacking the original energy that attracted us to the young rapper. It then reached a critical apex when Desiigner re-released “Tiimmy Turner” as the full-length lead single for his forthcoming debut album. The original 45-second XXL freestyle was a brilliant, dark piece of incomprehensible and nostalgic balladry, whereas the single version felt like an overproduced cash grab.
It again took Kanye to sweep in and fix Desiigner’s problems when he pumped out the remix that stripped the song back down to the wild, dark and bareboned aesthetic that made us fall in love with Desiigner in the first place. Going into 2017, Desiigner has to figure out if he’s in over his head, prove that he’s more than just a budget Future and firmly establish his identity as an artist.
This article is part of Scene’s The Year in Music series.