This past week, the arts section of The News-Letter convened to create our list of the Top Five albums in three different fields.These are our Top Five Pop albums of 2016.
5. Blonde by Frank Ocean
Blonde is only the second studio album from acclaimed R&B singer and producer Frank Ocean, who shot to stardom with his breakout mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and first album Channel Orange in 2011 and 2012, respectively. It was released amidst fantastic anticipation after Ocean notoriously teased the completion of a project thought to be titled “Boys Don’t Cry” in the summer of 2015, and most critics agree that it more than lives up to the hype.
The album’s lead single and opener, “Nikes,” is a psychedelic, dreamy track that sets up the album’s cohesive sound. Ocean’s album is a gorgeously raw musical experience, narrated by the artist’s expressive vocals and accompanied by an entrancing musical backdrop that is mellow and hints at melancholy behind the lyrics. Blonde is a standout musical experience because of its superb artistry and the emotional weight carried by each track.
4. Freetown Sound by Blood Orange
Freetown Sound marks the third release by British songwriter and producer Dev Hynes recording under the name Blood Orange. It is a complex album with a heavy, grounded sound that is precisely produced, incorporating elements of jazz, ‘80s dance and R&B. Hynes lends his name to all 17 of the album’s tracks as a composer, but features a range of guest musicians such as Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado and Carly Rae Jepsen.
It is an album about identity. Hynes posted a message on his Instagram alongside the announcement of the its release date indicating that the album would address the intersection of black and queer identity. The opener, “By Ourselves,” samples a slam poem performed by Ashlee Haze regarding feminism for African American women, and the track “Hands Up” includes audio of protestors chanting “hands up / don’t shoot.” However, it’s Hynes’s vocals that tie these different voices together, as he often broods on history but also expresses optimism for a better future.
3. 99.9% by Kaytranada
Kaytranada has made a name for himself with a number of mixtapes and extended plays, but 99.9% is the Haitian-Canadian producer’s debut studio album. An upbeat tempo ties this album together as it experiments with blending R&B and electronica influences beneath a host of guest vocalists and instrumentalists. Despite the quick, danceable tracks, the album maintains a dreamy sound that is reflected in its precise production. 99.9% has been well-received by critics, who praised the artist’s ability to combine and experiment with different genres, which include, in addition to alternative R&B and electronica, elements of funk, soul and dance music.
2. Anti by Rihanna
Released after a cryptic series of videos that supposedly contained clues about the album and rumors of a deal with Samsung, Rihanna released Anti to great anticipation. She did not disappoint, although some fans were expecting more of the same musicality to which they were accustomed. Rihanna’s eighth studio album was noted as a complete departure from her established style.
Admittedly, it isn’t hard to trace any artist’s development over such a prolific career, but Anti seems to be a total departure from the strong pop influence that has previously dictated Rihanna’s musicality. Instead, it is touching and heartfelt, blending acoustic instruments with synth production beneath the nuanced vocals. Each song on Anti incorporates a blend of different musical styles that inform a musical journey that is diverse and yet remains cohesive because of the singer’s impressive vocals, the thematic consistency of relationships and what it means to be in love.
1. A Seat at the Table by Solange
Solange’s third studio album, A Seat at the Table, is the culmination of eight years of songwriting and recording that have taken place since her last album released in 2008 and has received widespread critical acclaim. Solange said that this was more than an album for her and that it represented a transitional period in her life. She has spoken at length about the emotional stress she underwent during her work on the project.
The album’s lead single, “Cranes in the Sky,” was written by Solange in 2008 and was not revisited until she had completed recording the other songs on the album. “Rise,” the opening track, was first performed over a year before the album’s release in response to protests in Ferguson and Baltimore against acts of police brutality against black lives.
A Seat at the Table explores themes of empowerment and identity for African-American women, synthesizing expert musicality and relevant social commentary in an album worth recognition.