Back in 2014, BBC Radio 1Xtra rightfully earned flack for its list of the twenty most powerful entertainers in the UK’s urban music scene, on which Ed Sheeran held the number one spot. The most attentive listeners of Sheeran’s may recognize Sheeran’s Saltine cracker jams to be anything but urban, and in fact, this seemed like Sheeran’s whole selling point: he’s an inoffensive presence whose Hallmark tales of love and heartbreak are just generic enough to be identifiable to the lowest comment denominator. Someone, at some point, however, decided that if Sheeran wasn’t lovingly accepted by all as a representative of Black music coming from the UK, he would be in short time. That can be the only explanation as to why Sheeran decided to rap as much as he does on Divide, his third studio album—and the worst part is, Sheeran’s embarrassing brand of “fish n’ chip”-hop is far from the only problem with this record.
You’ve heard Stephen Bruner, stage name Thundercat, even if you’ve never heard of him. The Los Angeles-born bass guitarist extraordinaire has long played a background role in hip-hop, having appeared in recent years on Mac Miller’s GO:OD AM, Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, and the latest two projects from Kendrick Lamar. He’s a moldable presence capable of adapting to a stylistically diverse soundscape, even serving as the bass player of crossover thrash group Suicidal Tendencies for a number of years. On Drunk, his third studio album, Bruner displays a masterful flexibility of tone, even if he occasionally veers into sonic homogeny.
It was fitting that Ryan Adams’s previous full-length album was a front-to-back cover of Taylor Swift’s award-winning 1989. Both artists have made careers out of amplifying their intimate stories into anthems while retaining the specificity of their songwriting—Adams, at the time, was going through a divorce with his then-wife Mandy Moore, and Swift’s tales of structurally-unsound young love translated well to weariness, Adams’s degradation of relationship reflected in the somber acoustic guitars comprising much of the album.
It’s a principle that hasn’t waned, despite the more uniformly electric soundscape occupying Prisoner. From the outset, Prisoner proves to be a way’s away from his 2000 debut solo album Heartbreaker, a Nashville purist’s wildest fantasy, but Adams even deviates from his bluesy 2014 self-titled album, the last original material we’d heard from him. It’s almost as if he needed 1989 as a middle ground to metamorphose, its pop sensibilities transforming him into a full-fledged heartland rocker. The sun-drenched organs and guitars of the opener, “Do You Still Love Me?,” evoke Bruce Springsteen in the late ‘80s, and on “Doomsday,” his declarations that “My love, we can do better than this” soar over crashing acoustic guitar riffs. On the whole, Prisoner isn’t too far off from a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record, but its larger-than-life sound and raw sense of emotional turbulence fit the kind of grand arena orchestration that defined acts like Springsteen and Petty thirty years ago.
“Throughout my life, I always felt like I got a second chance at everything somehow,” Big Sean told Trevor Noah on The Daily Show late last month. Second chances and the process of reinvention have always marked the Detroit rapper’s career. Long gone are the days of strip club anthems set to MC Hammer samples; two years ago, Sean took a plunge into the moody, inky Dark Sky Paradise, his most ambitious project to date, while I Decided offers the most sonic diversity of his career. But as admirable as Big Sean’s penchant for rediscovery is, it’s only extended as far as the instrumental spaces he inhabits. I Decided still suffers from the same problem that every other Big Sean album does: Big Sean himself.
“And I really wanna thank the Migos—not for being in the show—but for making ‘Bad and Boujee.’ Like, that’s the best song ever.”
Donald Glover isn’t the only one to think so. Despite seeing relative success with singles in the past like “Versace” and “Fight Night,” Migos really hit their stride with “Bad and Boujee,” which went on to peak at number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 last week. The group became largely known in 2013 for their “Versace flow”—rapping in taut triplets—which influenced the likes of Drake, Future, and even Kanye West. Although they didn’t invent triplet flow, their usurpation of the technique became the cornerstone of their sound, members Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff’s burst-fire delivery tap dancing atop trap hi-hat percussion and chilly synthesizers. It’s perfectly acceptable that Culture makes no attempt to sound wildly different than its contemporaries, because it’s ultimately a satisfying affirmation that Migos has fully mastered its musical lexicon.
Repeat to yourself: My music will get me through the next four years. My music will get me through the next four years. My music will get me through the next four years. Here are ten great songs from last year. Maybe one of them will get you through the next four years.
If music is as therapeutic to me as it is to everyone else, then 2016 gave music a new level of importance in all of our lives. It was a bad year, but at least we got some great albums out of it. Here are my favorite albums of 2016.