By: John Gaudes
Every month, John Gaudes (@johngaudes) writes about a new release from the previous month and spins a mix based on the artist’s influences and peers. We call it the SP Mix.
When Blonde came out, I was at a cabin somewhere outside of cell range.
I had pilfered some WiFi and read a tweet that the album was released. Fresh off an evening where I sat on my couch and watched Frank Ocean build a staircase, followed by a morning spent on the road, I scrambled to sign up for Apple Music and streamed it to the smallest Bluetooth speaker possible. Blonde sounded… bad. It was too slow. There was no melody to grab on to. Somebody told me to turn it off, and I didn’t put up much of a fight.
Then, listening on the drive back home at full volume, the album opened for me. The slow rise from “Skyline To” to Andre’s verse on “Solo (Reprise),” the disquieting outro on “Futura Free,” that little Beatles allusion on “White Ferrari.” Over the next week, I got into Blonde like I used to get into albums –- when I had more time, when I was alone on the back of a bus somewhere in suburban Winnipeg. I got into it through pure repetition.
That process of discovery, divesting myself of everything else to investigate the corners and blunt edges of a great album, is what I love about new music. It’s one of the few things that make me happiest. Even better, the July drive listening to Blonde was in the middle of a year that I’d be okay otherwise forgetting. We all shared restless feelings in 2016 — watching the news, waiting for the next disaster. The small moments, the ones where we could press play and forget everything else, felt a little more romantic.
In general, the music we heard this year matched our restlessness. Faced with the world around them, artists turned inward and created masterpieces.
Radiohead and Bon Iver made triumphant returns to the spotlight with powerful reminders of their talent. For Thom Yorke, it was a long return to the band after his side projects. The songs on A Moon Shaped Pool remind us how important Jonny Greenwood is to his music, and how his lyrics can still make us ache when the curtain is pulled back. Justin Vernon, meanwhile, identified a new way to deliver his balladry –- the Messina synthesizer –- and pushed his folk roots into the digital world.
Frank Ocean came from nowhere with Blonde, a gorgeous revelry in loneliness and introspection. Kanye West looked in the mirror too –- unsurprising, sure -– and found the scattered, but frequently brilliant The Life of Pablo. It’s nothing new to see West express his personal angst through music, but it was still rewarding to see his mental state reflected in this album. He’s been an open book his whole career, and this turn is no different.
Black artists more comfortable writing about social issues did their thing too. Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound and Solange’s A Seat at the Table are stunning –- the former a celebration of African-American life in the face of death, the latter a declaration of self-love through the struggles of black womanhood. Beyoncé approached a similar topic with a more energized approach than her sister –- framing feminism and ideology through marital issues on Lemonade.
These albums, palpable voices of black life, were so crucial in a year where the U.S. Election threw most of us into a permanent state of unrest.
The Life of the Party
Finally, lest we forget about music unconcerned with larger meaning, there was some fun to be had out there. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is primed to top a lot of lists this month, and for good reason. He so easily makes rap into undiluted caffeine, an instant pick-me-up when you have no other options. Anderson. Paak was everywhere, with features galore. His album Malibu shows off his assured Motown roots and is unabashed in its soulful nostalgia. Montreal’s Kaytranada finally got his dues with the Polaris Prize, as his beat tape 99.9% featured joyous R&B. Put it on at your next house party, and you’re guaranteed to win some friends.
Finding joy through music felt more important this year. You get it however you can –- whether it’s through a DIIV guitar wall or Obongjayar’s hum, whether it’s listening to Swae Lee talk about John Lennon lenses or Mitski going soft-to-loud. We needed music to help us find our joy when the world was stepping on our throats. We lost David Bowie, for god’s sake. Prince was only 57!
2016, man. Artists died. Racism won. Nationalism rose. Living in these times, you feel the constant need to self-identify as a decent person, someone with a moral code. This internal struggle is exhausting; I know I’ll still gets nausea waves when I remember who the next American president is. When we get tired, feel the need to turn off for a moment, we need music to be our catharsis.
Discovering a new track on a drive home, picking a new album out of a plastic crate at the record store –- that’s happiness. This year, more than any other, we needed that happiness to counter-balance our angst. 2016’s new music did that. We can put on our headphones, recover, and get set to face whatever the new year brings.
Kanye West – Famous
Beyoncé – Freedom (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Chance the Rapper – No Problem (feat. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne)
Kaytranada – Got It Good (feat. Craig David)
Anderson. Paak – Am I Wrong (feat. ScHoolboy Q)
Frank Ocean – Pink & White
Blood Orange – Best to You
Solange – Cranes in the Sky
Drake – Feel No Ways
The 1975 – Somebody Else
James Blake – I Need A Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver)
Radiohead – Daydreaming
Obongjayar – Creeping
Moses Sumney – Lonely World
Kanye West – Wolves / Frank’s Track
Frank Ocean – Ivy
DIIV – Under The Sun
Twin River – Antony
Japanese Breakfast – In Heaven
Mitski – Your Best American Girl
Car Seat Headrest – Destroyed By Hippie Powers
Rihanna – Work (feat. Drake) [Lost Kings Extended Remix]
Rae Stremmurd – Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)
Kanye West – Ultralight Beam
Radiohead – True Love Waits
Bon Iver – 29 #Strafford APTS