Music In 2016, By The People

This is the music you loved in 2016. By you, I mean the six people who were willing to be interviewed. By interviewed, I mean answered questions I sent them on Facebook.

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The end of the year is always my favorite time to read about music. End of the year lists more plentiful than ever, expanding to “Quotes of the Year” and the “Best Music Memes of 2016”. There’s never a better time to read hot takes about albums you love and hate and read a review that spurs interest in a new artist – I discovered some of my favorite albums after seeing an unknown artist on some top ten end of year list.

With that being said, the views of a professional music critic don’t always reflect the diversity of, uh, amateur music listeners. So I asked Twitter to contribute by sharing thoughts on their favorite albums of the year. A few disclaimers follow. The questions were refined on the fly, so the consistency isn’t exact. Some listeners chose to answer briefly while others were more eloquent. Probably most importantly, my Twitter following trends toward hip-hop listeners and others who generally share in my taste in music. But, if that’s what the people like, that’s what the people like.

Personally, I have been pretty conflicted about the state of music in 2016. While I considered about five albums to be contenders for album of the year, I saw that as more of an indicator that each of those albums was hindered by a key flaw. Juxtaposed against the class of 2015, I felt there was a slight drop-off in the top-tier of music. Here are my top five lists from this year and the last:

2015

I Love You, Honeybear

Rodeo

To Pimp A Butterfly

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

Currents

2016

Blonde

Lemonade

The Life of Pablo

untitled unmastered.

Coloring Book

It’s a matter of personal taste, but I feel like 2015 offered five clear masterpieces that could fall in any order depending on your criteria, where 2016 produced maybe three masterpieces. On the other hand, the breadth of good-to-great albums in 2016 absolutely drowned out 2015.

I had the best intentions to make this an interesting piece with cutting insight and wry humor, but as we are quickly nearing February 2017, I feel like I owe it to the great people who answered my questions to just get this up. For what it’s worth, I took great interest in getting a sense of what my friends and family, a cross-section of millennials, valued in music in 2016, and I hope you do too.

*All interviews conducted via Facebook Messenger. Interviews were edited to read more like a real interview.

Let’s kick things off in rainy Eugene.

Profiles

Jordan Levine

Eugene, OR

j-levine-messages

Let me know when you have a chance to message for a bit about your album of the year! I’m also fascinated by our last Facebook messages.

Let’s do it… Hahah what the fuck was that about?

I have no idea. First: how’s Oregon?

It’s great man, very cold, very, very cold. But I really love it here. How’s DC?

It’s not too cold, people here sometimes refer to Virginia/D.C. as “the South”? I’m a big fan though, nice change of pace to see grass.

Yeah seriously, I was shocked to know that fall was real.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Do you still regularly listen to full “albums”?

I exclusively listen to full albums.

I feel like that’s becoming pretty unusual. How many albums do you estimate you’ve listened to more than once this year?

Pablo, Views, Bon Iver, Coloring Book, Starboy, Frank Ocean, Need To Breathe. Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of 2014 Forest Hills Drive recently. I don’t know if you want to include that.

What ended up taking the top spot for you?

Coloring Book. By far. Then TLOP. Actually, TLOP is a somewhat close 2nd, and then a far 3rd is Views.

I think those first two answers are going to be pretty popular. What about Coloring Book made it the clear favorite? And when did you first hear Chance’s music?

Hmmm, I guess I really liked the soul in his music. Also, I really like Donnie Trumpet on a lot of songs. And honestly, I think Ultralight Beam got me really into Chance. I had heard some of his songs before and wasn’t super into him.

Yeah Ultralight Beam is probably the best song I’ve heard this year, I totally get that.

I’m curious, what’re your top four albums this year?

I’m still trying to finesse mine, but I think it’s going to end up being Blonde, Lemonade, untitled unmastered., TLOP, and Coloring Book at 5. I think Coloring Book was distinct this year in how overwhelmingly positive it was. That’s not something I’ve seen appear on many Album of the Year lists the last few years. Was that part of the appeal to you?

Yeah, that was definitely part of the appeal. Also, Chance is just such a likable guy, and he’s an up and comer, so it was almost like listening to that album was like rooting for an underdog. Like, in the fact that you didn’t feel forced to like it or listen to it just because of who they were, which is how I felt listening to Views. You could just hope it was really great and if it fell flat, there was no loss.

I think that’s pretty spot on. Coloring Book is clearly superior to Views in most ways, but I think expectations for the two albums made that difference seem much more dramatic. I predicted Views would be the runaway album of the year coming into 2016, so I was heartbroken by what we ended up getting.

Last two questions for you – what was your favorite song on the album? Does album art factor into your appreciation of an album?

Ahh man, my favorite song changed so many times. I’d have to say it is the second “Blessings” on Coloring Book. The album closer. And I’ve never considered album art as much of a factor in overall appreciation. I guess no.

I like that choice of song. So damn wholesome.

Actual last question – what’s your preferred medium of listening to the album? For example, car speakers, headphones, speakers?

Thanks brotha, that means a lot coming from you. And I sold the car, so not that. Headphones are probably my main method. Oh, I haven’t heard it yet (note: interview took place before album release) but J. Cole’s new album is already at number 3 with a real possibility for the silver.

Bold! I really like the two singles though, the beats are hot (note: neither single made the cut for 4 Your Eyez Only). I’m stoked for it, too.

Wait, one more question and I swear I’m done! Overall, was this a good year for music?

I think this was the best year for music in a long time. Just about every major player dropped an album, and for the most part, they were all pretty great. You could also say this year changed the entire music industry when you consider Kanye’s “live” album. Something that could never be done with a CD. Frank Ocean kind of made record labels obsolete, too. You don’t really need someone to distribute your album if you’re just streaming it.

Yeah, Coloring Book is probably the highest profile example of that, but I forget Blonde is self-released too. Thanks for your time.

END

Our friend Jordan gave Coloring Book the slight nod over Pablo, in a race that probably mirrors many millennials’ tastes. Jordan also put a lot of weight into Kanye introducing the “live” album to the music industry. I’ve said before that I don’t think that concept is as monumental as it has been made out to be, but there’s something to be said for any cultural imprint it leaves behind.

For the record, my sleeper pick for favorite Coloring Book song is “How Great”. Let’s pop over to small-town Texas to get the eclectic opinion of my brother.

Sam Ramirez

Liberty Hill, TX

Hello brother.

Elder one.

So first: do you still regularly listen to full albums?

Yes! I’ve listened to a few this year on Spotify.

What ended up being your album of the year?

I really think Palm in Mirror by Disparition has to be my number one.

That’s gonna be one most people have never heard of. I would never have heard of it if not for you. What made it your number one?

It sounds so different from anything else I’ve ever heard. I’m a big sucker for movie soundtracks and cinematic music, and Disparition is almost exclusively an instrumental guy. Palm in Mirror in particular sounds hopeful, like you’re exploring or getting something really important done.

Let’s breakdown “it sounds so different from anything else I’ve ever heard”: is that important to you? In what way? Why?

Yeah, I don’t mean to sound any more fake deep than the next person who says “popular music all sounds the same,” but I feel that the really unique sounds and the emotional visuals of Palm in Mirror (and Disparition’s previous albums) set the artist as a whole apart. They’re thoughtful, almost like the music is constructed meticulously in some parts and with bursts of inspiration and passion in others.

I think it’s always been hard to find albums where you can tell the songwriting was done really carefully but there’s still some live energy to it. That’s one of the reasons I love untitled unmastered. from this year so much. You have those pre-programmed drum tracks and produced instrumentals mixed with live instrumentation and that little recording outtake left in “untitled 07”, which I think is one of the best music moments of the year. People have talked and written quite a bit this year about the new way popular music is produced, by committee, digitally, individuals sending digital files to each other back and forth across the globe, and it’s just so refreshing to get a breath of music that you can see the seams of, so to speak.

I like the way you’re describing this Disparition album. I need to check it out. How’d you even hear of Disparition? He doesn’t seem like someone the major music publications are interested in. One of my bigger music discovering flaws is that I’m pretty reluctant to spend listening time on really small, relatively unpopular artists.

I first heard of him on “Welcome to Night Vale”, which is a podcast he does the music for. I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I still keep up with Disparition.

I feel like all your answers are going to be the most unique answers I get. Discovering an artist through a podcast seems unusual. Do you have a favorite song of the year, and if so, is it on the album or from somewhere else?

This is a tough one. I need to think about this.

Go for it.

Alright, I can’t think of a number one favorite song from this year, so I have to go with my favorite song off of Palm in Mirror, which is “Hawk in Airport”.

It feels safe to say that’s the only vote that song is getting for song of the year. I need to check that out too. Does album art factor into your appreciation of an album?

Somewhat! The album art for Palm in Mirror looks and feels southwestern, and I can kind of relate to that aesthetic.

What’s your preferred way to listen to the album?

I listen to music on headphones the most, but I love to drive and listen to music. It’s pretty effective in helping me to just unwind.

Was this a good year for music?

Definitely. We saw untitled unmastered, The Life of Pablo, and another successful year without Counting Crows.

Can’t argue with that.

END

I should have known Sam’s album of the year would be mysterious, unheralded, and enigmatic. Still, while Palm in Mirror may not be burning up the Hot 100 or critic’s lists (or even getting reviewed anywhere, as far as I can tell), I think it’s perfectly representative of the splintering nature of millennial music consumption.

Music streaming services, access to cheap recording gear, and quick-upload sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp have increased the supply of easily-accessible music and facilitated the formation of sub-genres on sub-genres. So Sam found an obscure album from an obscure artist and connected with it more than anything else in the whole year. For many segments of music listeners, that experience is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Now, we swing over to the jungle of Los Angeles to get some feedback from my friend Dylan.

Dylan Wheeler

Los Angeles, CA

d-wheeler-messages

Let me know when you have a chance to message for a bit about your album of the year!

AlunaGeorge – I Remember.

I didn’t even ask you a question yet. Well, what made it your album of the year? And do you listen to full “albums” very often nowadays?

No, I think it’s pretty dumb for most artists to make full albums. My favorite artist Lido dropped a sick album, but he spent like two years on it and he could shit out a remix in a week and I would probably listen to them the same amount. I liked every single song on the Aluna album and bumped it the longest in my car, so that’s my favorite. I probably only listened to 5 full albums this year though.

Was your favorite song of the year on the album, if you have a favorite song of the year?

Are those two separate questions?

Well, I guess they basically are. Do you have a song of the year? If so, is it on the AlunaGeorge album?

“Not About Love” is my favorite song on the album. Let me check my Spotify for favorite song.

“Gotta Push On” by Griz is my favorite song, I think. Actually, I listened to like 10 albums this year.

Last two questions for you: does album art factor into how you judge an album, and overall, do you think this was a good year for music?

No, unless the artwork becomes meme’d like TLOP, I don’t really notice. It was a great year for electronic music. There was some good pop music. I don’t know about hip-hop.

END

I’m clearly getting distracted at this point, as this interview is far shorter than those that preceded it. You’ll see that trend continue.

So Mr. Wheeler thinks the album is a relic of a bygone age. I respect that, and I think the way artists and labels approach “The Album” will continue to change. That change has already begun. As Dylan noted, many artists are “shit[ting] out a remix” weekly, and for plenty of listeners, that works. As labels gauge the finances of an artist supplying a consistent drip of new tracks (cheap) versus building suspense, anticipation, and demand through promotion and a lengthy album creation process (expensive), the scales could tip further in the direction of rapid remix shitting.

I don’t think the album will ever go away, just as Kindles and blogs didn’t banish books to the annals of history. Still, now that aggregate streams are considered to be portions of album sales (meaning all of your “One Dance” streams are going to make Views go quintuple-platinum), the calculus of releasing a “Fake Love”/”Sneakin” pairing every month may look more profitable.

Now, we’re taking a trip to San Marcos (I think), where I was too busy to be on Facebook Messenger and thus sent Adam Terry a barrage of questions to answer like a quiz. Sorry, Adam.

Adam Terry

San Marcos, TX

Do you still regularly listen to full “albums”?

Yes, I still listen to full albums regularly but usually only if it’s someone I really like or someone I’m just starting to get into.

What was your album of the year? What made it your album of the year?

My favorite album of the year was Coloring Book (but I haven’t listened to 4 Your Eyez Only yet). It’s my album of the year because it’s so lighthearted that it always puts me in a good mood whenever I listen to it, and Chance is one of my favorite artists across all genres.

When did you hear about Chance?

I first heard about Chance the Rapper in the summer of 2013 not long after Acid Rap came out. He opened for Mac Miller when I went to see him so when I got home I looked up his music and have been listening ever since.

Was your favorite song of the year, if you have one, on the album?

My favorite song of the year was “Nikes” by Frank Ocean, so no, it was not on the album.

That’s a great choice. It’s definitely in the running for my song of the year. Does album art factor into how you judge an album?

I’d say cover art is just a bonus if it’s cool but doesn’t really affect how I judge it. Some of my favorite albums just have a blank monochromatic cover and some of my other favorites have cool art, so it doesn’t really affect anything for me.

How do you listen to music, preferred?

If I have some high-quality headphones to use that’s my preferred method of listening to music, but if I don’t have any good headphones than it’s car speaker all the way.

Was it a good year for music?

AT: I think it was a pretty good year for music when it comes to the type of music I like, but I think 2015 was better still.

END

Here’s our second vote for Coloring Book! And our first vote for “Nikes” as song of the year! I love that song. I also want to note I almost went to that Chance/Mac Miller concert that summer, but my friends were more into J. Cole and the Randy Rogers Band, so I didn’t have anyone to go with. I was also glad to see someone else say 2015 was a better music year than 2016. I like when my views are confirmed.

We now turn our sights north to the mid-Atlantic to hear from Bethany, a student at UNC. I also didn’t have time to do a proper interview with Bethany, which is a shame.

Bethany Vance

Chapel Hill, NC

Do you still regularly listen to full “albums”?

Honestly, hardly ever. I use Spotify religiously, and it’s so easy to just pick a few songs and never really give an album a full listen.

What was your album of the year, and what made it your album of the year?

The Life of Pablo from Kanye West. I kind of hate myself for how much I love that album, but regardless your opinion of Kanye West, he demands your attention. I’ve found that I can’t listen to this album while I’m doing something else because it requires my full attention. I think the album also spoke a lot to his mental state over the last year. It’s like he mixes his unapologetic confidence with a cry for help.

He makes jabs at himself and his mental health throughout the whole album, which was really evident in “FML”. It sounds cliché but each song is so unique and completely unlike anything I’ve ever heard. If you asked me to point you to what I thought was the future of music, I’d point you to this album.

When did you hear about the artist?

I’ve been listening to Kanye since I was approximately 8 years old, an odd choice for a middle class white girl living in the South.

Was your favorite song of the year, if you have one, on the album?

I’m really torn on this one between “Ultralight Beam” and “Wolves”, but ultimately, I’m going with “Wolves”. Aside the fact that I would sell my soul to Sia, it’s just beautiful, for lack of a better word. I kind of feel like it’s the rawest song on this album as far as really discussing shit that means a lot to him. You know, not Yeezys or bleached assholes, but the death of his mother and his marriage.

Does album art factor into how you judge an album?

I wouldn’t say it makes or a breaks an album for me, but I think it’s another outlet of expression that many artists let go to waste. I actually love the cover of TLOP because it’s messy and kept changing even after the album dropped, just like the album.

How do you listen to music, preferred?

Like I said, I have a Spotify account so I make a stupid number of playlists on there and just listen to them until I get irritated. I really find I enjoy music the most while I’m on a run. I hate running, but I get excited to go just because it’s such a great time to really listen to music without having to focus on anything else.

Was it a good year for music?

I think so. I had an incredibly tough time deciding what I thought was the album of the year. Coloring Book was excellent of course, untitled unmastered. from Kendrick Lamar actually had what I would consider my favorite song of the year, “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014”. Of course, I tend to stick to a few particular genres so I can’t really speak for music as a whole.

END

This is a great breakdown of The Life of Pablo, which gets its first nod here after a few mentions earlier. I’m particularly interested in Pablo sounding like the “future of music”. I mostly agree with this, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. There are certainly the haute-trap elements on “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4” that have become more popular in recent years, particularly since the release of Yeezus. But I think that future sound is the one that defines songs like “FML”, “Real Friends”, “Wolves”, and even the retro-leaning “No More Parties in LA”. It’s the strangely mixed, ever-so-slightly off-key and off-kilter background cooing on “Wolves” – those same elements define the sampling on “No More Parties in LA”. I’ll have to do more thinking about this, but it’s as good an argument for Pablo as album of the year this side of “Have you heard ‘Ultralight Beam'”?

Let’s wrap things up in the Live Music Capitol of the World by polling my cousin Lauren.

Lauren Bryant

Austin, TX

Do you regularly still listen to full albums?

It depends on who the artist is but if it’s someone I really enjoy I will listen to the whole thing. If I like the album, I’ll buy the CD and listen to it on repeat in my car for months.

What was your album of the year, and what made it your album of the year?

Well, I’m not very in tune with the albums most are ranting and raving about on social media. My favorite band is A Day To Remember and this year they came out with a new album, Bad Vibrations. For me, that’s the album I was the most excited about, AKA my album of the year. I knew I would like it when they released it, but I was surprised by how much I loved it because it was different than anything they’ve released before. If you don’t know ADTR, you’ll listen to the album and think it sounds like all the others but if you’ve listened to all their music, you’ll hear the difference. I still have it in my CD player, and it came out in September. I’ve always related to their music, and that’s why they’re my favorite. Bad Vibrations of course has songs that get me in my feels and some that make me feel empowered. Plus, it’s a great album to pump you up on the way to work when you’re not excited to be headed there. Just scream a couple songs and you’re ready to take on the world.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year are expectations for albums, in the way a lot of high-profile releases like Kanye’s and Beyoncé’s and Drake’s albums had a huge amount of hype, which was sometimes met, sometimes not. ADTR is your favorite band, they released something you weren’t expecting, and it ended up being your favorite album – do you think expectations leading up to an album change the way you think about them?

Yes and no. When they released their first two singles for the albums I was not thrilled. They weren’t relatable and had a totally different sound. I truly began to like and respect the album after I had listened to the whole thing a couple times in a row. Granted, I probably made myself listen to it in full once or twice before I loved it. So yeah, I expected to love it, but before it was released, I wasn’t sure that I would like it as much as their previous albums. With Lemonade, I was instantly obsessed because it’s empowering and you feel like she’s letting you into her life (especially that there was a video to go with the full album). I’ve never liked Beyoncé as much as I do now that Lemonade came out, so when it did, I was in no hurry to listen to it. In fact, someone leaked it on Facebook and that’s how I watched/listened to it the first time. I have never listened to Views or The Life of Pablo (that’s what it’s called right?) in full and unless forced to, I doubt I will.

Do you have a favorite song of the year?

Does it have to be off that album or can it be any song? That’s hard.

Just in general.

That’s a really tough question. I’m not sure I have a favorite song of the year. I listen to a lot of different genres of music so I don’t think it would be fair to say one song was my favorite when it can’t be compared to another awesome song because they are totally different. It wouldn’t feel right to say absolutely, [insert song name] was the best song of 2016. Slap a genre in the question and I could probably give a more definitive answer with confidence.

END

This was another curveball series of answers that probably isn’t so strange on the macro-level. While A Day To Remember certainly didn’t garner much of the mainstream music spotlight in 2016, that it was well-received by Lauren (and, apparently, much of the alt-rock press) is evidence enough that Pitchfork and the hip-hop blogs that are weighed heavily on social media aren’t exactly representative of millennial tastes. If you’ve ever listened to an “experimental” album that Pitchfork gave an 8.0+ to, you already knew that. Still, just like the Rust Belt-dwelling Trump voter, we must seek to understand the Pablo haters, so we can better inform and combat them in the future.

What did we learn?

I got the chance to ask six people what their favorite albums of the year were, and half of them were expected – those were the two votes for Coloring Book and one for The Life of Pablo. The other half spread out a bit more – AlunaGeorge’s I Remember electronic/dance album, A Day To Remember’s pop-punk Bad Vibrations, and Disparition’s electronic/ambient Palm in Mirror.

There’s a niche for every listener, and there’s an outlet for every artists. Naturally, we’re bound to start seeing greater and greater support for those artists that fall between the critical cracks.

Thanks to everyone who participated, and I’m only sorry I didn’t get to interview more people.

By Jake Ramirez

 

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