Album of the year: Staff picks

Regardless of where you stand in the wide spectrum of music genres, it’s hard to argue that 2016 wasn’t a good year for music. After four years of silence, Frank Ocean unleashed what could be his greatest release to date. Justin Timberlake put out a single that was later immortalized in the hearts of Atenean freshmen. Twenty One Pilots and The Chainsmokers both blew up this year, releasing their own unique singles to critical acclaim. Here, we list down our own staff picks for 2016’s Album of the Year:

Cody – Joyce Manor

By Franco M. Luna

Few music scenes have displayed an ability to chronicle the rocky emotional terrain of adolescence the way punk rock and its many subgenres have. Beyond the socio-political outspokenness of straight up punk, purveyors of the genre have always enlisted power chords and low-fidelity distortion in the pursuit of personal expression and emotional outpour.

Such was the case for Southern Californian quartet Joyce Manor. Despite being purposefully obtuse in its wording, their sophomore record Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired spawned lyrical gems like “I feel violent all the time, inside of me,” clearly demonstrating the band’s penchant for writing sincerely raw lyrics about the throes of youth to accompany their eclectic brand of emo-punk.

It’s only right, then, that for an album with such clear progression, lead singer Barry Johnson chooses to write about the perils of growing up in Cody, their most recent studio offering. The Torrance-based outfit favors a more processed approach this time around, with clean production that does its job of highlighting a more hook-focused and indie rock-centric counterpart of their earlier sound. DIY supremacists may bemoan the disappearance of their previous low-fi tendencies, but this change works more in their favor than against. Choosing to trade edgy for wistful, they come out sounding more like old-school Weezer than a contemporary Jawbreaker. The instrumentation is tight but easy on the ears, with the opening and closing numbers featuring standout shoegaze-esque riffs to offset the acoustic track nearing the record’s midpoint.

While it’s true that they are sonically more radio-friendly this time around, Cody is still, at its core, a Joyce Manor record: the melodies are memorable enough to draw you in and with a certain tenderness, it moves the listener in more ways than one. Apart from the uncertainty that comes with aging, their lyrical themes range from addiction on “Do You Really Want to Not Get Better?” to existential dread on “Eighteen.” As a result of this, the entirety of this record’s 25-minute-run finds itself laced with sentimental melancholy, bordering on the maudlin. There’s a certain emotional connection that’s formed on first listen and for any fan of music, this is enough to keep listening.

By the time the quartet closes the record with “This Song Is A Mess But So Am I,” it’s clear that Cody is not just another pop-rock sellout hopelessly clawing its way into the mainstream. With a slightly more subdued sound, Joyce Manor manages to write their most refined and personal record to date, while staying true to their current catalogue and flaunting the endearing genius that has always made them a band to watch out for.

 

Blonde – Frank Ocean

By Regis Andanar

Frank Ocean’s latest release titled Blonde comes after four years of agonizing silence and undoubtedly does not disappoint. It is filled with slow, constant emotion—Ocean’s voice is unmistakably vulnerable, while his character is self-aware—and takes you on a honeyed trance. Blonde covers themes that ultimately lead up to the central narrative of Frank Ocean’s self-acceptance; lost love and exploration of sexuality in “Self Control,” while “White Ferrari” is an ode to his youth as he raps “16: how was I supposed to know anything?” His yearning for affection is encapsulated in Nikes as he croons “I may be younger but I’ll look after you. I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you.”

Ocean’s years of unadulterated experience, coupled with his signature melodies, make the record genuine and an undeniably strong candidate for album of the year. It takes you on a ride of nostalgia, more so if you have listened to his older material. Ocean’s voice brings in an atmosphere of familiarity; like an old friend you haven’t seen in a while, with lots of stories to share. While his raw emotion transcends from his older releases to Blonde, the contrast rests on his growth as an artist. Blonde is fueled with new narratives you could relate to as your own. It’s as if the wait for this album release was just right—it allowed his audience to grow alongside him and it kept his material relatable but mature.

While the record plays on nostalgia, it also provides the listeners an opportunity to reflect on their own growth. As Frank Ocean serenades his listeners on Ivy, “You ain’t a kid no more, we’ll never be those kids again,” he shares his personal life but as the tracks play, you cannot help but hear them as your own. The strength of Frank’s music lies in its resonance; Blonde is for every child who grew up to realize that there is more growing up to do.

 

Failing Forward EP – Curtismith

By Romano Santos

Taking its title from a self-improvement book by John C. Maxwell, your friendly neighbourhood rapper’s second EP is far from a sophomore slump.

In Failing Forward, Curtismith candidly narrates the hustle of an up and coming local artist as he navigates the world of critics, politics, relationships, and self-doubt. Referencing everything from ex-lovers and best-selling authors to the voices inside his head (see my personal favourite track No Sleep feat. Simian), each track off this EP is filled with the fresh and honest perspectives of a man on a mission.

The EP has a deeply personal vibe, as if Curtismith was taking his audiences on an unadulterated tour through his thought patterns and processes, yet it cannot be said to be solely about the artist. Curtismith positions these personal struggles against larger overarching themes of finding one’s passion, committing to a pursuit, and going against the grain –all of which lacked a young and local spokesperson and soundtrack until Curtismith’s Failing Forward.

Each of the six tracks is made distinct by local producers and artists such as CRWN, Manila Killa, and Frank SVG, yet the EP as a whole brings an addictive unified flow. I would credit this to Curtismith’s effortless rhyme schemes, impassioned Scripps-caliber diction, and charming use of pop culture icons such as Stephen Curry, Steve Jobs, and even Aladdin.

Curtismith is confident yet keeps his feet planted on the ground as he tells a story both individual and universal. Failing Forward represents a determinate step in the right direction for the developments of both the artist and of local music.

Catch Curtismith perform some tracks from Failing Forward in Vantage’s very own Pub Room Sessions by clicking here.

 

A Seat at the Table – Solange Knowles

by Carlito O. Mortel

On A Seat at the Table, Solange Knowles is less concerned with producing a hit single and more concerned with producing genius music with a clear message. The album is a contemporary masterpiece, expressing a narrative through tales of black struggle, anger and pride interwoven with tracks that express all her emotions about these issues fervently. Done with delicacy, the album comprises of tracks like “Mad” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” which discuss the issues of black women without strangling them by the throat, only playing with a knife’s tip around them. The subtlety further accentuates the fragility of the issues. Her vulnerability is also highlighted in this album as she discusses topics of rejection, self-worth, and moving on. The musicality of Solange’s work shines through, pairing classic elements of soul and funk and contemporary elements of R&B. Her voice throughout the album is gentle yet rich, and often airy with moments of strength. On most tracks, her entrancing falsetto is paired with a strong bass that creates a euphoric harmony. Listening to the album in its entirety is a must, as each track goes into another seamlessly, telling her story fluidly and piquing your interest more and more after every track. Her music seems to reverberate around the room in all directions, commanding you to feel it, encapsulating you in the spiritual experience that is Solange.

 

99.9% – Kaytranada

By Martina R. Roces

If you’re like me and you’re looking for an album with a mood that constantly changes throughout every song, then Kaytranada’s 99.9% is 100% perfect for you. The dance DJ and producer’s debut album is an eclectic mix of hip-hop, soul, and R&B fueled by electronic beats and funky percussion. Kaytranada collaborated with a bevy of heavyweight artists such as Craig David and AlunaGeorge to produce a one-of-a-kind album that smoothly transitions from infectious dance music to laidback chill beats. A standout from this album is “You’re The One” featuring The Internet vocalist Syd, a modern love anthem that’s sure to be a hit on the dancefloor. 99.9% is a colorful and clean-cut piece of work that stands strong amongst the millions of other electronic albums.

 

I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it – The 1975

by Franco M. Luna

These days, the three-point formula for stardom seems set in stone for young musicians hoping to make it in rock music. Throw in a quirky set of attractive adolescents together, have them play a brand of bubblegum pop-rock-with-more-pop-than-rock, and with the right marketing, it’s sure to generate street teams and world tours.

Meet The 1975, the band that acts as an antithesis to this. In 2013, the Cheshire-based quartet put out their self-titled record: a diverse collection of smart, riff-centric, indie-pop songs that saw them destined to take over the pop charts, rock charts, or both.

Fresh from the success of their debut, The 1975 come back bolder and trade grit for personality with I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. Their eclectic sound comes off as more artful than angsty this time around, relegating guitars in favor of layered synth flourishes. There aren’t a lot of genres that aren’t touched on throughout the record’s 73-minute run, and the result is an eccentric, 80’s-inspired sound that works in their favor. When the instruments aren’t seducing listeners with their next dance floor favorite, they’re toying around with the ambient, moving the audience into unadulterated emotion with a pure sort of tenderness. The record fades off warmly with two acoustic tracks, leaving new fans entranced, capping off a listening experience marked by rawness, intimacy, and heart.

All this marks a stylistic change, emphasized in the neon-pink aesthetic of their cover art. Old fans might see this shift as an attempt at mainstream success, but truthfully, this is still the same band that released The 1975 three years ago: charismatic and nearly twice as irresistible.

Their music video for “The Sound” came out in late February as a response to the countless critics who panned their last album. In the video, one of these detractors asks “Do people really still make music like this?” pointing to their take on “pompous arena synth-pop”.

The answer is yes.

 

The Ride – Catfish and the Bottlemen

By Ching M. Balina

I don’t believe music is something formulaic, but it’s hard to stand by this when every up-and-coming band is reminiscent of the bands before them. It’s no surprise then that Catfish and the Bottlemen seems like every new band that has been coming out recently. To their credit, however, it works for them. Their own Van McCann reminds us that the quirky frontman songwriter more often than not leads his equally quirky friends to stardom and The Ride is resonant of the edgy and bold albums that helped set in stone the names of record-breaking rock bands.

With one word titled songs and polished beats, the lads from Wales thrive on the black-and-white, the edgy simplicity. No pretense, just Bob’s Hall drum work perfectly accompanying Van McCann’s voice to create memorable hooks, beautiful harmonies, and contagious energy. Their minimalism may be mistaken for lack of ambition but the Bottlemen may have struck gold with this style.

The Ride by Catfish and the Bottlemen could have been their Favourite Worst Nightmare or What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) and “7” could have been “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” or “Wonderwall,” but instead it continues their climb to international success. Seemingly slower than their predecessors, the Bottlemen have yet to find their career-making hit. No doubt, however, The Ride puts them on the right path.

 

Emotion, Side B – Carly Rae Jepsen

By Deany R. Cheng

Ostensibly cobbled together from songs that ended up on the cutting floor as Carly Rae Jepsen was finalizing the track list to her 2015 smash hit Emotion, it would have been all too easy for Side B to have ended up as an unnecessary addition to an already unimpeachable work—think Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, Part II. Instead, it might even be her most essential album: The quintessential Carly Rae collection.

It is certainly her most lyrically mature, although that may not be immediately apparent from the irresistible bop of her musicality. Unlike Emotion’s contemporary polish, Side B is much closer to the pure 80’s kitsch that so informed her criminally underrated 2012 album Kiss. Despite this, its songs are less about love and more about loss, although I feel Jepsen would say they’re the same thing. From the unbearable yearning of “Fever” to the oblique fracture at the heart of “Store,” Side B’s tracks feature Carly Rae at her most contemplative, although she doesn’t quite give up on love just yet. It’s just much harder than most pop songs make it sound.

Nothing about Side B feels artificial or calculated. You’d never mistake it for the output of some marketing study or extensive planning process. Rather, it feels as if it simply emerged from the ether of her imagination, fully and wholly itself. This does not take away from Carly Rae’s genius—her craftsmanship is exquisite and layered—but instead adds to it. She can make even complex compositions sound entirely spontaneous and—dare I say it—products of pure, unadulterated emotion.

A collection of rejects has no right being this good.

 

Lemonade – Beyonce

By Carlito O. Mortel

2016 has been riddled with albums providing social commentary, proving that music is a part of everyday, human life. Beyoncé has succeeded on that level of social “woke-ness” in Lemonade, but integrated it seamlessly in an album full of personal anecdotes. Tracks like “Freedom” and “Formation” show her strong political stance in the midst of raw and revealing tracks like “Hold Up” and “Sandcastles.” The music on the album is diverse and complex, with Knowles using her usual R&B style and adding in elements of reggae, alternative rock and even country. It’s the familiar Beyoncé we’ve grown to love, but fresher and bolder, new and exhilarating. The album radiates with feelings of anger and betrayal, being intimate yet bold. Beyoncé has bestowed upon us the gift of intimacy, letting us feel what she feels while producing beautiful music in the process. If you’re looking for the album that best represents Beyoncé’s musical career, you’ll have better luck with her previous self-titled album. If you’re looking for Beyoncé at the peak of her musical genius (so far), you’ll find it in Lemonade.

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