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.
It was the late, great film critic Roger Ebert who argued that the underlying thesis of film criticism is rooted in the notion that “movies are not about their stories, they’re about how they’re about their stories.” Form and structure, mood and atmosphere—not just what an artist says, but how they say it—go beyond the craft of cinema. For the first two albums released under his Childish Gambino moniker, Donald Glover’s focus on these elements was scant, largely because, at the time, Glover had been using Childish Gambino as a means of expanding his stand-up sensibilities to hip-hop. Glover lives and breathes in multiple artistic realms—as a musician, as a comedian, as a television writer, and as an actor—but, at any given point in time, one can take a lateral view of his career and observe commonalities across those realms. It’s partly why albums Camp and Because the Internet are so wildly inconsistent; Glover brandishes the brash swagger of a more seasoned emcee, but punchlines like “Got no patience, cause I’m not a doctor” and “Girl why is you lyin’, girl why you Mufasa” exhibit some of the frustrations that come with translating comedy into hip-hop music. Glover having littered most of his early music with these gems, it’s difficult to tell exactly what his own underlying thesis is, because it often amounts to little more than trial and error in the service of a chuckle.
But 2016 brought us the FX series Atlanta, and with it, Glover demonstrated a much more abstract approach to comedy. Atlanta is remarkably nonverbal in its humor, concentrating instead on the frame through which the humor is shown. The “B.A.N.” episode—modeled after a fake BET talk show with parody commercials—is sharp in its content, but even sharper in its structural conceit. “Awaken, My Love!” actualizes the lessons learned from Atlanta and features Glover at his most passionate and expressive, all without a single rap verse across its eleven tracks.